Talking to a child when a loved one dies
Updated: Oct 24, 2021
As all adults know, with life, comes death. We know this, but it is still complicated to grasp, to put words to the tangle of feelings and to deal with the internal questions. For children, processing death can look very different depending on their age and development, their personality and their closeness to the deceased.
When your voice has no words, let your heart speak with a hug.
A few things to consider when talking to a child about the death of a loved one:
Questions: Answer children's questions in a developmentally appropriate way. It is normal for children to ask the same question several times. This is their way of processing things. They might also ask questions you consider are disrespectful but it is unlikely this is the child's intention and more likely just curiosity. It is also normal for children to ask nothing. If this concerns you, ask if they have any questions or perhaps ask what they think has happened.
Language: Saying things like 'Pop has gone to sleep' can make young children concerned about sleeping. Instead consider saying, 'Pop has died.'
Tears: There is no 'standard' way to grieve. Let children know crying, and not crying, are both ok (for the child and for you). Children often process things while they play, or simply need to play for some 'time out' from heavy grief, just as adults do.
The Funeral: does the child go or not go? Trust your gut. If a child is attending, prepare them by letting them know what they will see, hear and do during and after the ceremony. Let them know they might see adults crying but that is ok. It might be useful for the child to bring a comfort item if appropriate.
Three of my favourite picture books to share with young children when someone dies
Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in between, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. Explores life-cycles, including those of people.
The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst. Explores the idea we are always connected to those we love, even when separated by being at school, in own bed at night or by death.
The Tiny Star, by Mem Fox. A story about the death of a grandparent