- When discussing death with children, it's best to tell the truth—not every detail, but the basics, as euphemisms can confuse them.
- Common reactions for children to have after a death include dreaming of the deceased and not being able to concentrate on school.
- Don’t try to ban death from play; children naturally and spontaneously use play to cope with anything stressful.
Death and grief are universal aspects of human existence. Even so, most of us are pulled in two directions:
- Approach it, face it, and work it through.
- Avoid it, deny it, and cover it up.
This makes sense. Avoidance is necessary so we don’t get overwhelmed, but approaching it is also necessary so we can get to acceptance. This push-pull is especially challenging when it comes to talking with children.
In my own background, there are customs that lean towards approach—sitting shiva, telling stories, or maintaining a calendar of planned rituals and reminders. But there was another tradition as well. If someone had cancer or died by suicide, it was whispered about or not mentioned. Many other traditions have similar contradictions—maybe there is an open casket at the funeral, but also a message not to cry.
What to say?
I got a call from a friend on behalf of her extended family. They didn’t know what to say to her 4-year-old nephew whose mom had died. Various family members told him she was sleeping, on a business trip, or in the hospital. So confusing. Telling the simple truth did not seem to have occurred to any of them.
But we can tell children the truth—maybe not every detail, but the basics. Beware of euphemisms like “sleeping” or “in heaven” because children can be very literal. They may become afraid to sleep, or pack their bags to find the road to heaven. One child was told his brother was “too good to live,” so he started misbehaving.
What about religious ideas? Share them if you believe them, but don’t say things you don’t believe just to make children feel better. Grief is not meant to feel good. (Heaven is full of puppies and endless ice cream? Really?)
Children will want to know very physical details: “What will the buried person feel or eat under the ground?” Be clear, simple, and honest with your answers. Of course, they will ask, “Will you die? Will I die?” We can’t protect children from these hard truths, but we can soften them with our empathy and affection.
Should we take our children to the funeral?
Adults looking back at losses in their childhood often say, “My parents made me go to the funeral” or “My parents wouldn’t let me go to the funeral.” Does this mean that parents can’t win, no matter what they do? No, it simply means asking children and letting them decide.
If you do bring a child, make sure they have someone designated to take them outside to talk or play if they don’t want to sit still or be around sad adults. It should be someone who is not actively grieving, if possible, and who can focus their attention entirely on the needs of the child.
If the child does not go to the public event, offer some way at home to honor or remember the person, such as lighting a candle, making a scrapbook, reviewing photographs, writing a card, or telling a story about the deceased person.
Common reactions for children to have after a death
- Retelling events of the death or funeral
- Dreaming of the deceased
- Regressing, such as talking like a baby, wanting to be carried, or wetting the bed
- Feeling the deceased is with them in some way
- Rejecting old friends and seeking new friends who have experienced a similar loss
- Crying or needing to call home during the school day
- Can’t concentrate on homework or classwork
- Excessive worry about their own health, or about the safety of their parents
- Becoming a "class clown" to get attention
- No reaction or appears to be unfeeling about the loss
- Take long drives or walks, so you are side-by-side with your child.
- Don’t pester them with a million questions, but initiate conversations so they know the subject is not taboo. Then, listen more than you talk.
- Accept children’s feelings without judgment. They may have a huge reaction to the loss of a pet fish and no apparent reaction to the loss of a grandparent. Let tears flow. Don’t rush them, but don’t force them either.
- Be aware that annoying or obnoxious behavior may be a coded message: I’m overwhelmed and can’t talk about it. When we tell children, “Stop pestering me,” they may hear instead, “I don’t want to hear about your grief.” We do want to hear it; we just didn’t know that was on their minds when they bounced a ball off our heads.
- Play. Children naturally and spontaneously use play to cope with anything stressful, overwhelming, or emotional in their lives. Death and grief are no exceptions. Don’t try to ban death from play. It’s impossible, and it’s invalidating.
- Accept self-centeredness. Children are naturally focused on aspects of death that affect them personally. Instead of looking sad when their grandmother dies, they may ask, “Who will take me to school?” That’s not disrespectful. It is a necessary search for security after a big change.
Good books that help explain death to children
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, Judith Viorst (death of a pet)
- Lifetimes, Bryan Mellonie (all living things have lifetimes)
- Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, Lucille Clifton (death of a father)
- Valerie and the Silver Pear, Benjamin Darling (death of a grandmother)
- Kiddish for Grandpa in Jesus’ Name, James Howe (interfaith)
- Molly’s Rosebush, Janice Cohn (miscarriage)
- Understanding Death and Illness and What They Teach About Life: An Interactive Guide for Individuals with Autism or Asperger’s and Their Loved Ones, Catherine Faherty (not just for children on the spectrum)