Telling a child or teenager that their beloved family member, friend, or pet has died is one of the hardest conversations out there. While most of us understand that it’s not helpful to lie in these situations, we still may struggle to figure out the exact words to use, or how much information to give. Often, we worry about saying the wrong thing and upsetting the child even more. November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month, and in honor of that milestone, I wanted to present some tips for having this very difficult, but very meaningful, conversation with children and teens.
Use clear language
Euphemisms are often easier for US to say, but they can often confuse children and give them false hope – which can hurt them more in the long run.
* Instead of, “She passed way,” say, “She died.”
Avoid statements that minimize feelings
Statements like, “Don’t be upset, Opa wouldn’t want that” can be well-intentioned, but often don’t provide the comfort or relief that we’re hoping they will. Again, it’s understandable to want to protect children from hurt, but sometimes these statements only make them feel worse. We don’t want kids to be worried that they’re disappointing the deceased person, or not grieving in the right way.
* If the deceased person suffered in their final days, it’s okay to let the child know that the person isn’t experiencing pain anymore. (For religious families, it’s also okay to incorporate talk of after life.) Instead of, “Don’t be sad, he’s in a better place,” try, “He’s no longer hurting/He’s in Heaven now, but it’s still okay to miss him and be upset.”
Answer questions simply and honestly
Some questions can be really difficult to hear, and can bring up feelings of strong discomfort in us. We may also fear that answering certain questions may somehow tarnish children’s innocence or frighten them. However, when kids don’t receive answers to their questions, they typically attempt to fill in the blanks themselves – and their assumptions are often 10x more upsetting than the actual truth.
*If a question catches you off guard and you’re not sure how to respond in the moment, it’s okay to say, “That’s a very good question and I want to make sure that I give you a good answer. Let me think about it for a minute.”
Don’t force them to talk about it
Once you’ve informed a child or teen about the death, don’t attempt to ask them a lot of questions or make them discuss their feelings if you can see that they really don’t want to. Talking about feelings doesn’t come naturally to most kids – many will prefer to process their reactions through art, play, or writing.
* Let them know you’re available to listen or answer questions if anything comes up, and then let it go.
Be ready for a range of feelings – or for no outward experience at all
Anger, confusion, sadness, and guilt are all common feelings children experience following a death. More often than not, kids may not seem to have much of a reaction at all. This can be alarming for parents, especially when the child was particularly close to the deceased person. However, external expression of feelings does not always accurately reflect what is happening inside. Again, they may have an easier time expressing these feelings through other means.
* Tell the child, “however you feel about this is okay.”
If the death was due to a physical or mental illness, name it
This is often the hardest one for parents to wrap their minds around, but it’s very important. If we simply say that the deceased person was “sick,” young children may misinterpret that to mean that they or their loved ones could die of a cold. Remember, trying to protect kids and teens from the truth may make US feel better, but doesn’t do them in any favors if it only increases their confusion.
* Naming the illness doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need to go into major detail! Many kids will be satisfied with an honest, simple answer.
Allow and encourage memorialization
Making a shrine to a dead goldfish that your child only had for two days might seem over the top to you, but it can greatly help the grieving process. Memorialization helps children come to terms with the death as a reality, and also helps maintain their connection to the deceased.
* Ideas for memorialization: drawing pictures, setting out photos, playing music, balloon release, writing or saying somethingabout the deceased