Death is a difficult concept for adults to grasp, let alone children. However, children as young as four can understand finality. When children see adults grieving, they want to understand and will ask questions. Sudden death and tragedies can be more complicated as a child might worry that the people they love will suddenly die as well.
Funerals and rituals can be confusing and scary to children. Explaining what is happening and what will happen will help to ease this anxiety. Often, adults are nervous about including children in the discussion about death. Not explaining what is going on might scare and confuse them more.
Here are some pointers to help explain to your child what death is:
1. Use child-friendly language and avoid euphemisms
Children will not understand if you say grandma is resting now or grandma has passed on. Be clear and attune to what your child is feeling. You can say something like, “I have some news that might make you sad. Whatever you feel is ok, and we can talk about it. Grandma died today. She was sick for a long time. Now she isn’t suffering.” Wait to see how your child reacts and respond to their emotions.
2. Responding to your child’s emotions
Grief can be a confusing emotion where anger, sadness, happiness, guilt, and other feelings can come up. There is not a wrong way to grieve. You can help your child to put words to their emotions. For example, “It is ok to feel sad and to cry. You might see a lot of people cry over the next few days.” Or “Are you scared?” Let them grieve if they need to grieve. Children often cope through play. One minute they might be crying, and the next, they might be playing happily. Allow them this time to play as it will help them process what happened and is happening. Playing with your child will help to strengthen your attachment.
3. Allow your child to attend the funeral, but don’t force them
Funerals can provide closure for young children. If they are afraid and don’t want to go, don’t make them. If there are rituals, explain them to your child so that they aren’t confused and anxious.
4. Reassure them
Some children might be afraid that they will lose other people that they love. Tell them that you will do everything you can to make sure that you are healthy. Reassure them that you will take care of them and make sure that they are safe.
Structure, predictability and routines help a child to feel safe. If your child seems to be scared, enhance the bedtime routine. Some children will be afraid to sleep; their fear of death might look like a fear of monsters or kidnappers. Tuck them in at night, read them a story, add a calming scent, turn down the stimulation and ask them about their feelings. Remind them that they are safe.
6. Practice self-care and self-compassion
Grief can feel like your mind and your body is slowing down. Things might feel like more of a challenge than usual. Speak kindly to yourself and be patient with your own emotions. Your mental health is essential for the caretaking of your little ones.
7. Draw a picture or write a story about the deceased
You can ask your child what the deceased meant to them. What is their personal story? What did they learn from this person or pet? What did they love about this person or pet? Do they want to draw a picture or write a story about it? If they say no, don’t push them. They might be ok to play and not speak about it.
8. Take a break
Some children might need a break from the grief, so encouraging them to speak about it when they don’t want to might make them feel worse. Make room for fun and distraction if necessary.
If your child seems overly anxious, depressed, can’t be calmed down, isn’t sleeping or eating for long periods, seek professional help.
If you would like to set up an online session to talk through any emotions, you might feel, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although I am a registered clinical psychologist with the Hong Kong Society of Counseling and Psychology, I am not a licensed psychologist or any other type of licensed therapist in the United States. The information I am providing here is educational and informational. This social media page does not provide professional advice, nor does it create a professional-client relationship or any other type of relationship between us. You should always consult your own licensed mental health professional before making any changes regarding your mental health. My goal is to educate, guide, consult, and empower you regarding your mental health journey. Always consult your licensed mental healthcare provider(s) and never disregard or delay medical advice based on information posted on this page or post.