Dealing with death and loss is hard at any age, but can be especially difficult to process for children. Younger children, for example, may not fully grasp death as a concept and understand that the person is gone for good. Older children might understand that, though it’s unlikely that knowledge will make them feel better. Complicating matters further is the fact that most people (of any age) aren’t comfortable thinking or talking about death. It’s a reminder of our own mortality and makes us sad. But in situations where a child is experiencing a loss, it’s important to know how best to support them, especially in cases involving the death of a parent. Here’s what you should know about how to how to explain death to a child, the child grief stages, and tips for helping them cope.
How to explain death to a child
This isn’t going to be an easy conversation, but it’s an important one, especially if the child has lost a parent. When having this discussion, the Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation recommends doing these three things:
- Being honest and encouraging the child to ask questions. If you don’t know the answer to one of their questions, it’s perfectly fine to say, “you know, I’m not quite so sure about that.”
- Let them know that any feeling they’re experiencing is OK. Tell them that showing emotion is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that it’s perfectly normal to feel mad, sad, confused, hurt, or a combination of things.
- Let the child know how you feel. Allow yourself to feel emotion, and for the child to see it. This will help normalize the range of emotions associated with grief for people of any age.
If the child is at the age for Sesame Street, you may want to consider showing them the iconic clip from the 1983 episode “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” where the adults of the neighborhood explain death to Big Bird. When preparing the script for the show, the Sesame Street writers consulted several child psychologists to ensure that their message was appropriate and could provide as much comfort and help as possible.
Fair warning to the grown-ups watching: it may be very difficult for you to make it through the scene without tearing up. And that’s OK, because emotions are normal and healthy.
Child grief stages
Though you may already be familiar with the five stages of grief identified by psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, when dealing with children a different model is frequently used by mental health and bereavement professionals. This one comes from Drs. John Bowlby and Colin Murray Parkes, two British mental health professionals practicing in the 1970s, and involves four stages:
- Shock and numbness: Children may appear to cope well with their loss at first because they are stunned. “It is important for parents to be patient, listen and make themselves available,” Lisa Derr, a family mediator writes. “Again, while parents can help their children express the multitude of feelings they have, it cannot be forced on the child.”
- Yearning and searching: Children may appear restless, angry, or bewildered, which may cause them to act out or withdraw completely from family connections. “During this time, it is important to stay calm, not overreact and realize that their feelings may change drastically from day to day,” Derr explains.
- Disorganization and despair: After the loss actually hits the child, they may experience extreme sadness, depression, guilt, and anger. According to Derr, this could result in sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and lack of enthusiasm for things they used to enjoy.
- Reorganization and recovery: While the child’s grief is only beginning, this is the final stage of the initial grieving process, when things return to some version of “normal.” Parents can help by making sure their child is getting enough rest and eventually settles back into their routines.
Tips for helping children cope with death
Just like adults, every child mourns and grieves in their own way, so there’s no single coping strategy that will work for all kids. There are, however, a few things to keep in mind that may be useful for both yourself and the child:
- Speak to their personality, age, and developmental stage. The same thing that comforted your 14-year-old may not work with a 6-year-old. Tailor your words and strategies to where they are right now.
- Validate their emotions. Don’t tell a child (or anyone, really) to “just get over it.” Make sure they understand that emotions (even ones that might feel strange at a time when you think you’re “supposed” to feel sad) are healthy and normal.
- Be patient. A child may not grasp the concept of death right away, so let them do so on their own time. Also, keep an eye on any changes in their mood and behavior in case there is something that seems out of the ordinary and should be addressed.
- Use creative expression. Not every child will have the emotional intelligence and vocabulary to adequately describe how they’re feeling after a loss (and again, that’s completely normal and understandable). Suggest that they draw or paint how they’re feeling, or maybe act it out with dolls or other toys. Of course, if a child isn’t responding to this strategy, don’t force it and move on.
- Find opportunities to build relationships. No, you are absolutely not trying to replace a parent, grandparent, or whoever else died. This is more about encouraging and assisting children to strengthen their relationships with others, like aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, family friends, etc.
- Cry together. As parents, we want to protect our little ones but it’s OK to show them your emotions and that you’re feeling sad too. Showing them that pain is normal and acceptable. This creates healthy emotional intelligence and better communication. Plus, crying feels good and it’s cleansing. So help your kiddo heal by being open about your feelings.
- Maintain a routine. When dealing with death, it’s easy to fall off of your usual schedule. Setting time aside to grieve is important, but it’s also essential that your child sticks with their regular routine. It will help them better manage their feelings and return to a sense of normalcy.
- Make funeral attendance optional. When it comes to a funeral, it’s important to remember that kids grieve differently than adults. We look at funerals as opportunities to find closure, but some kids aren’t emotionally ready for the kind of environment. And that’s OK. First, explain what a funeral is and if they express feelings about not wanting to attend, it’s important to respect that and not force them.
- Prep them for the funeral. Even for an adult, funerals can be strange places. No one is ever really prepared for that experience. However, it’s important to walk your kid through what a funeral looks like beforehand. If it’s an open casket, tell them what that means. Talk about what the internment will be like and why certain things are done during the event. Your goal is to increase their understanding so there is little confusion.
Explaining the death of a pet to a child
When faced with the death of a beloved family pet, the best course of action is to be honest, concise, and not leave anything to vagueness. It’s important children understand, as best they can depending on their age, that the death is not temporary and they in no way caused the loss of the pet.
Other things to consider may be: “How many experiences has your child had with death? How have you talked with him or her about death? What’s been seen on television?” Abigail McNamee, PhD, EdD, chair of the Department of Early Childhood and Childhood Education at City University of New York, tells WebMD.
Books about death for kids
Sometimes grabbing a book that talks to a kid on their level can also be a great way to teach them about loss.
1. The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
This book is not only beautifully drawn with captivating colors, but it goes through the emotions we typically feel when experiencing a loss. It discusses the difficulty and the pain of saying goodbye to someone, while also reassuring young readers that life moves on and hurt heals. It comforts kids and helps them accept the reality of death and what that means for them moving forward.
3. I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Losing a pet is a unique kind of pain — when it comes to kids, it can turn their world upside down. The story focuses on the narrator and his dog Elfie. It goes through their life together, stopping at Elfie’s death. Throughout the boy’s grieving process, he is shown feeling sad but also finds comfort in knowing that Elfie knew she was loved.
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