Talking to Children and Teens
A child's ability to understand death varies according to his or her age.
When a loved one dies, it can be difficult to know how to help kids cope with the loss, particularly as you work through your own grief. By being open and honest, encouraging communication, and sharing your own feelings, you and your children cope with painful times and begin your healing journey together.
Tips for Talking to Children about Death
- Use concrete terms when talking about death. Don't shy away from the words "death" and "dead". While it might seem gentler to use phrases like "passed away" or "went to sleep", this can be confusing for a child and lead to difficulty understanding the finality of death.
- If your child doesn't understand what death means, try explaining it in terms of the body, such as "Aunt Rachel's body stopped working".
- Encourage questions, and answer them to the best of your ability.
- Be honest when you don't know the answer. An honest, "I just don't know the answer to that one", can be more comforting than a made-up answer or an answer you don't believe.
- Your child will probably be dealing with a lot of difficult emotions, some of which he or she may not have experience before. Give your child a safe space to express his or her emotions, and spend time talking openly about his or her feelings and thoughts.
- Remember that recovery is an ongoing process. Young children often experience periods of normalcy which interrupt their intense grief, and the alternating periods might shift over the course of hours, days, or even years.
- Listen to their fears and reassure them. Children can develop fears as the result of a loved one's death. Whether it's an irrational fear linked to the cause of death, a fear of losing you or another family member, or a fear that something they did caused the death to happen, spend time comforting your children and helping to assuage their fears.
- If your family holds particular religious beliefs about what happens after you die, you can share them with your child as a source of comfort (but don't introduce it too soon, as it might be too abstract for kids under age 5). An alternate approach is to let them decide for themselves, by saying something like, "No one knows for sure. Some people think you go to heaven, while others believe people come back on earth as different creatures. What do you think?"
- Don't hide your own grief. It's important for children to know that adults cry when they're very sad, too, and that their feelings of grief are normal and shared by others. Let them know that you're okay, and find comfort together by sharing your feelings and remembering the loved one who is gone.
- If your child seems to be struggling especially hard with a loss, or if grief is seriously interfering with their day-to-day activities, routines, and outlook on life, don't be afraid to seek professional help or therapy when it's needed.
The following links provide more detailed information on a variety of topics related to helping children and teens cope with loss.