Talking with kids about death

In our household, we are unusually comfortable talking about death and dying. Between my job as a pastor where I average about ten funerals a year and the eight years Meghan was a hospice social worker, our daughters are starting to learn that they are less anxious about death and dying than their peers, all thanks to the occupations of their parents and our discussions of our days at work in the kitchen or living room.  

I have often found that adults have higher amounts of anxiety about how death impacts children than their children often do (I can’t say the same is true of teens and tweens). Children often pickup on adults’ anxiety and can be confused about death and dying because adults tend to speak so abstractly about death.  Children need us to be direct and share age-appropriate, concrete information about death. My messages for children throughout this series feature stories for younger children about death to help empower our youngest disciples to live faithfully as resurrection people in the reality of death.   

I want to offer some helpful pointers to adults so we can demonstrate a faithful witness about death to our children:

  • Use simple words to talk about death. Be calm and caring when you tell your child that someone has died. Use words that are clear and direct. “I have some sad news to tell you. Grandma died today.” Pause to give your child a moment to take in your words.
  • Make sure to use the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’. Many find using the words dead or died uncomfortable—and prefer using phrases like, passed away, lost, crossed over, went to sleep—but research shows that using realistic words to describe death helps the grieving process. Alternative phrases are confusing to young, concrete minds. If grandma has ‘gone to sleep and won’t wake up’ imagine how bedtime will be for your child who wants to wake up the next day.
  • Put feelings into words. Ask kids to say what they’re thinking and feeling. Label some of your own feelings. This makes it easier for kids to share theirs. Say things like, “I know you’re feeling very sad. I’m sad, too. We both loved Grandma so much, and she loved us too.”
  • Tell your child what to expect. If the death of a loved one means changes in your child’s life or routine, explain what will happen. This helps your child feel prepared. For example, “Aunt Sara will pick you up from school like Grandma used to.” Or “I need to stay with Grandpa for a few days. That means you and Dad will be home taking care of each other. But I’ll talk to you every day, and I’ll be back on Sunday.”
  • Be comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” Having all the answers is never easy, especially during a time of such heartache. It’s helpful to tell your child that you may not know about certain things, like, “How did grandpa die?” “What happens to Aunt Rita at the funeral home,” “What made Spike run into the street, Mommy?” or other unanswerable questions.
  • Cry. Cry together. Cry often. It’s healthy and healing.
  • Allow your child to participate in rituals. Let children pick clothing for your loved one, photos for the memorial, a song, or a spiritual reading. This will help them gain a sense of control over the traumatic loss.
  • Prepare your child for what they will see in the funeral home or service. Tell children what they will see, who will be there, how people may be feeling and what they will be doing. For young children, be specific in your descriptions of what the surroundings will look like. For example, describe the casket and clothes and that the body will be posed. Or if it’s a memorial service, talk about where the body is, if it’s been cremated, in a closed coffin or already buried. Bring along someone to care for the child if you are distraught.
  • Prepare your child for the future without your loved one. Talk about how it will feel to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and special moments without your loved one. Ask your child to help plan how to move through the next calendar event.
  • Provide the comfort your child needs but don’t put your feeling on the child. Don’t be afraid to share stories, laugh, or do something that makes you all feel a little better: play, make art, cook, or go somewhere together. Also be prepared if your child doesn’t need comforting right away — kids, like all of us, process in their own time and ways.
  • Avoid hiding your feelings, changing the subject when kids are around, or distancing yourself because you feel uncomfortable. Kids pick up on these adult behaviors and are also observant about what’s happening in and around them; when there is a disconnect kids pick up on that and create their own interpretations of how to think and act.
  • Don’t hesitate to talk with a trained professional, grief counselor or pastor– For yourself or your children. Grief is its own emotional roller coaster and impacts us all in different ways and timeframes.  
  • Tweens and Teens. All the suggestions above also apply to tweens and teens. It is often helpful to be proactive with this age-group and talk about death and dying before they experience a death close to them. Here is an article that has some pointers on how to start such a conversation.

There are many great books on death and dying. Your local library will likely have a decent selection. The books I am reading for my children’s messages are: “What happens when a loved one dies? Our first talk about death” by Dr. Jillian Roberts; “Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs” by Tomie dePaola; “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst; “Where do they go?” by Julia Alvarz. I also recommend “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” by Leo Buscaglia; “I Miss You” by Pat Thomas; “When Dinosaurs Die” by Laurie and Marc Brown and “The Memory Box” by Joanna Rowland.

Grief is rarely easy or pleasant no matter our age. Pastors are here to help us in our grief. One of the powerful promises of the faith is that in the new creation, death and grief will be no more. Until that glorious day, may we comfort each other and ask for God’s tender mercies to be upon us all.