How to talk to your kids about death

When it comes to telling sad news, there’s a way for adults to regulate their emotions about death and explain it to their children.

 Death valley National Park, California (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Death valley National Park, California
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

When a loved one dies, it’s always difficult, and to tell kids about a death is even more complex. How do you instill a sense of security when you tell a child someone close to them has passed, and which words should be used? This is how to speak to children about the loss of a loved one.

The topic of death is painful, frightening and difficult for adults. So, when a parent needs to convey such an emotional issue to children, he/she may be frightened, confused or talk about the death in an abstract way. 

Many parents are afraid to talk to their young children about death, whether a favorite pet has died or grandma passed away, from a desire to protect kids from any pain and discomfort. Also, most parents think that kids won’t understand what death is. 

Dana Hovesh, a certified parent counselor at the Adler Institute and the Ministry of Education, claims that children actually see, hear and feel everything, but they’re bad interpreters. 

They hear you talking, pick up cues that the home atmosphere is different and feel changes in behavior and tone of voice. It’s therefore important not to hide or leave children with ambiguity, because they may fill the void created in their imagination with images worse than reality.

What do children need?

Children need someone who’ll explain what’s happened according to their developmental stage. If a parent isn’t available, it can be another relative close to the child. They depend on your words and the feeling of confidence you instill in them to learn to cope with various situations as they grow and for handling new milestones with ease. Studies have shown that speaking to young children with concrete information about death helps them, whereas when adults around them are vague or refrain from telling objective facts, children experience emotional stress.

So how do you discuss this issue?

Talk to kids at a calm time and not when you’re crying. When you’re upset, your child will sense something through non-verbal messages which can be confusing. 

Be matter-of-fact and don't be afraid to explain the word "death" and what it means, as this will now be a part of their natural vocabulary. Be real yet brief, for example: "Grandma died because she was very, very sick and very old." 

Emphasize the "very" so they won’t be afraid they’ll die from a cold or upset stomach. To give them a sense of security, answer all their questions which will give kids the message that in your home everything is talked about. Every question is acceptable and you don’t hide anything from them. This is how to demonstrate and model an atmosphere of openness, sincerity and trust which will extend to other subjects such as personal security.

Children in their early years understand the world in a concrete and tangible way, so it’s important to not use metaphors. Don’t say “Grandma went to sleep” or that she’s in the sky. 

This may make them afraid to go to sleep as kids might think they’ll die too, or go on a plane, since it might hurt Grandma.  Make room for emotions like fear, anger, sadness, be empathetic to any feelings or behaviors that come out and tell kids how you feel, for example, "I'm also sad. We can remember and miss her together.” 

Sadness is part of our rainbow of emotions. We shouldn’t hide and repress, yet instead discuss sadness as a normal emotion that’s allowed to be experienced. If the children ask if you too will die, answer honestly, “Yes, we’ll all die after we’re very, very, very old.”

Trust your children. Even if they’re scared or sad, they can cope and will be able to move on. Listen to them, be with them when life is tough, answer their questions, hug and encourage them in the difficult moments.