Talking to children about a death in the family can be one of the toughest things to do, especially if this is the first time that the topic has come up. Death is a difficult concept for a child to comprehend, and therefore questions that they may ask can be challenging to answer.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when talking to children about death.
• Be honest and open with the child. Try not to oversimplify.
• Express your sympathy to the child. Let him or her know that you also feel the loss of the family member, and that things will take time before they go back to normal. It is best to share with them the reality that things will change, but will work out in time.
• Be supportive to the child’s grieving process. Everyone grieves in different ways, and has his or her own coping mechanism. Be supportive and be there or give space to the child as needed.
A child’s age and maturity level can dictate how you should talk to a child about death. A 3-5 year old may take things very literal, so you may want to avoid phrases like “went to sleep” when referring to death. At this age, children typically take everything said as “truth” or fact, so it’s best to explain that the person has died, and that it is final, so they can begin to accept it, too.
Slightly older children (6 to 8 or 9 year olds) do not readily accept things as facts but instead ask a lot of questions and see how the “logic” fits with what they currently know. In this age range, you may need to start giving more details on how the death came about. Clear, simple explanations are best. For example, if someone passed due to a heart attack, you might want to say something such as a vein to the heart was blocked, so grandfather’s heart stopped beating.
As children reach 10, they become more logical and may realize that death can affect them, too. For example, if a child of this age hears of a fatal accident, they will start to think about how they too could die in a car accident. It’s important to deal with their emotions, whether they are fear or grief. Comfort the child and share emotions with them. Children in this age group may need reassurance that they are safe as well as being provided with support and comfort in the grieving process.
Regardless of the age of the child, it’s important to provide them with only the level of information about death that they can comprehend. Each child will handle death differently, so it’s important to do whatever it takes to help the child understand and be comforted.