by Ashley Eppolito and Madison Wallace
Talking about death: It’s not something that anyone prepares you for… ever.
Truthfully, I think all adults hope they won’t ever have to have this conversation with a child or teen, even if they don’t consciously realize it.
It’s kind of funny isn’t it? Odds are, if a young person in your life experienced a loss, you too are experiencing that same loss in some sort of way. And despite your own reactions and grief, the most daunting thought is, How do I tell my little person?
Honestly, honesty is key.
Children and teens are a lot more perceptive than we sometimes give them credit for, and they are incredibly capable of absorbing and comprehending information if it is explained to them at their pace.
The goal should be to meet them where they are.
Maybe they won’t have a lot of questions right now. Maybe they will. Maybe the questions will all spill out two months from now, or two years from now.
Maybe they’ll cry and maybe they won’t. Maybe they will come find you in the middle of the night in those first hours, and maybe that will happen weeks later.
One of the most important things for you to be mindful of when discussing death with a child or teen is to be confident that they have a foundation of resilience and you can help build on that.
Judi’s House, another center for Grieving Children and Families, shares a great resource with additional information about explaining death, what to expect, and how to help here.
Step into Their Shoes
Thankfully, you do not have to be an expert in child development to have an honest conversation about death with a child or teen in your life. However, there are some tips to help you start navigating that dialogue. For example, Jean Piaget, a renowned child psychologist, developed a largely accepted model of stages of child cognitive development; understanding these stages is incredibly helpful when preparing the appropriate language to use when discussing death with a child or teen.
- Birth to 2: Newborns and toddlers explore their world using their senses. For them, the most significant challenge is evident in their attachment, especially if the person lost was an attachment figure. Their world will be different without them. They will expect them to come back, and long for their return. For children on the older end of this spectrum, try to explain death simply and concretely. As hard as it may be to say, explain that their special person will not be returning, because their body no longer works. Avoid confusing terms like “went away” and “resting”.
- Preschool (3-5):Preschool age is all about magic and play pretend. For them, death may be seen as
temporary. They may believe that the person will one day return. They might believe that the person is lonely, or even hungry. They may struggle to understand the cause of death. They may fear that the death was a result of or punishment for something they did. The magical thinking that exists among this age group may present itself in their constant curiosities about death; try to answer these questions as honestly and concretely as possible. It’s important to avoid confusing terms with this age group as well.
For more specific guidance as to how to explain certain types of death, click here .
- School Age (6-11): Significant development takes place during these primitive years of schooling. Most will probably understand death’s permanence, yet view death as a mystical ghost or haunting. They are also still likely to believe that their actions or thoughts had some role in the death. Towards the later end of the school age spectrum, children are likely to understand that death is permanentand universal. School age children are likely to demonstrate great fear and anxiety relating to the idea of death. They may also have a large array of questions or even a fascination as they attempt to understand more. Though, they will try to hide these feelings in public, and try to fit in with their peers.
Be patient. Physical and creative outlets are important for children this age, as may be hesitant, or may not have the verbiage, to talk about their feelings.
- Teen (12+): Teens will understand the universality and permanence of death. Teens may begin to think about death abstractly and/or spiritually. When talking about death with this age group, the primary focus should be the processing. Teens may experience and exhibit a wide range of reactions, that may include guilt or regret over past actions, intense anger, irritability, fear of abandonment, trouble sleeping and/or even embarrassment over any of these feelings. Teens long to fit in and may distract themselves with peer involvement. Healthy peer groups and other outlets can be especially helpful.
For more about Piaget’s stages, you can explore here.
Tell the Truth
Explaining death to a young child is an unimaginable experience. The words “death” and “died,” can feel too harsh. Too sudden. Too terrifying. Many people think they can use flowery language, as if this will somehow “soften the blow.”
The shock of death is inevitable. Children are only able to cope with what they know, and become easily confused with things they don’t understand. Any attempt to hide the reality amongst words has only one result: confusion.
Avoid euphemisms, such as “passing away,” “lost,” or “asleep.” These terms can be confusing for children as they take many things literally. For example, describing a loved one as “asleep” instead of dying could make children fear going to bed at night. The word “lost” inherently denotes the ability to be found. You can lose your shoes. You don’t lose a person.
Even religious metaphors, while they may seem to be the “gentler” way to explain death, can also be harmful. Saying “it was God’s will,” may cause the child to angrily blame God.
For many children, the idea of death and grief is a confusing experience. It is often difficult to support and comfort grieving children, especially if you are grieving as well. It is important to remember that asking questions is an important part of the grieving process, and children should be answered honestly and in the most literal ways.
A Child Should Never Be Alone
“When we don’t tell kids what is happening around them, they are going to imagine what is going on.” – Andrea Warnick (Grief: Helping children cope)
So what can you do? Encourage children to express their emotions. Let them know that what they are feeling is natural. Help them understand that they are not alone in the grieving process.
Instead of overwhelming children with information, try answering any of their questions first. Not only does this help them gain a better understanding of death, but it also encourages conversation and makes them more comfortable sharing their ideas.
Children are only able to cope with what they know, and become easily confused with things they don’t understand. The more people avoid the subject of death, the more unanswered questions they will have, leading to more complex grief reactions.
For some children, it is helpful to discuss the idea of an afterlife. Even if the child is not religious, the idea of people living on in the hearts and memories of others can be comforting. A child should never be alone, not in this world, and not in death.