For many parents and caregivers, telling a child that someone has passed can be an incredibly difficult task. This can be particularly trying if we too are processing grief, or if we are unsure of our ability to cope with the reactions that children may have.
For some children, the concept of death is totally foreign, while others may have experienced the death of someone before. In either case, there are several factors that adults should consider when approaching the topic with your child.
1. When should I tell them?
Sometimes, the fear of talking to children about death can lead us to put off the conversation. However, not telling your child directly can sometimes cause more problems to grow.
If your child hears about the death from someone else, or they accidentally find out, they might experience a sense of confusion or even anger. Talking to the child as soon as possible allows you to ensure that they receive the appropriate information, and creates an environment in which they can reach out to you for support.
If you have more than one child, you should consider whether it is best to tell them as a group or as individuals. While both have pros and cons, they can be influenced by factors such as the ages of your children, their temperaments, and their connection to the deceased.
2. What should I say?
Often, knowing what to say to your child can be the most trying aspect. Although it may be uncomfortable, being as open and honest about the situation can help to ensure that your child has a clear understanding of what has happened.
It’s important to consider age appropriate language when talking to your children. Explaining death to a child can be tricky, as some of the concepts are abstract and difficult to understand.
If the concept of death is new to the child, you may need to be explicit as to what death entails. They may ask questions like “why did they die?”, “will you/I die?”, or “Will they come back?”. While these questions may be confronting, answering honestly will reduce any confusion they might have about the issue.
Discussing the death with older children and teenagers may be handled quite differently, as their conception of death is more developed. Even so, being honest about the issue and providing understanding and support can provide a safe environment for them to talk about the person who has died.
3. Handling the response
Like most parents will know, sometimes children will react in ways we don’t anticipate. Everyone experiences grief differently, and your child might respond in ways that don’t make sense to you.
Do your best to be as supportive as possible to your child. If you have difficulty in knowing how to support them, it is sometimes helpful to seek some extra support that you or your child may need.
We sometimes need help to process our thoughts, feelings, and responses to death, and your child is no different. Talking to a professional can provide the space for you or your child to explore your own and each other’s experiences, and to help you both to keep standing strong.
It is also important for you to be aware of your response to the conversation. Sometimes, when we’re so wrapped up in the experience of others, we forget to acknowledge our own experience.
Whether you’re anxious about the encounter, or battling with your own experience of grief, take a moment to explore your experience of the situation. What are you thinking or feeling? Is this impacting the conversation? How? Being aware of our own experience can help us to effectively support our children as well as ourselves.
While it is totally natural to be concerned for your child’s well-being following a death, it is helpful to remember that grief and loss are adult concepts that children may or may not experience. If your child is playing like normal, don’t assume that they’re repressing their emotions. If they keep asking about the person who has passed, don’t think that this means they’re experiencing complicated grief.
Children experience life as it comes, and things constantly change in their world. Don’t be concerned if they don’t respond as expected; children don’t process things the way that adults do. Remembering this can be helpful when talking to your child.
While you may worry about the impact this will have, know that your child has the skills that they need to stand strong. Children are more resilient than we think.
*Image By Shonna on Flickr.com