How to talk with your kids about death
My dad died a little over two months ago. I have been too wrapped up in sorting out his affairs and memorial, my own feelings about him and his passing to talk with my kids about their feelings, his death or death in general.
I’ve given it lots of thought, but until recently hadn’t put those thoughts into action. Mostly because I didn’t know how to have the conversation with them.
Death is one of those taboo topics that we don’t discuss enough. We are all a little unsure about and afraid of. Most of us don’t want to acknowledge that we might die before we are ready and miss out on the lives of our families and friends. We especially don’t want to think about the possibility of loved ones dying before we do. We avoid thinking about how devastated we would be at the loss of a parent, partner or especially a child.
As a result of this taboo, we tend to be uncertain about how to talk about death with our kids. We want to help them understand a significant life event. We also want to avoid saying the wrong thing that may make them afraid of other loved ones dying – especially us.
As parents, we will all be forced to address the topic with our kids at some point, most likely at the same time that we are also grieving. Where do you start?
Check your beliefs
We all hold different beliefs about what happens when people die and it is important to consider and understand your own beliefs before talking with your kids. Religion defines those beliefs in many families. For others they are a hybrid of religion and personal philosophy. And for a growing number of us, it is all about our personal philosophy which may have nothing to do with any religion or faith.
It is ok if you don’t know what you believe and it is ok to tell your kids that you don’t know.
How old are your children?
Depending on how old your kids are, they will process information about big ideas differently. Younger kids will likely require repetition. In my case, my three year old keeps asking where is Poppa every time someone mentions him. She doesn’t understand what death is and even though we have said “he died”, “he isn’t here any more”, “he is dead”, “we won’t see him anymore” she is so far unable to grasp the concept. In our case it is harder because my dad lived ten hours away and we hadn’t seen him in person since my now three year old was a few weeks old. For her, he has only ever been a man talking to her through the computer. It is harder to explain that someone is no longer around when they weren’t really around in the first place.
Older kids will understand the concept of death better and will have likely encountered the idea through TV shows, cartoons, books and perhaps friends who have lost family members or pets. Talk to them about how they are feeling and how you are feeling. Help them to understand the emotional response to death. Reassure them that it is ok to feel sad and that they can come and talk to you anytime they feel sad.
Answer their questions
Kids will have questions about death and they may not even have those questions until they have had time to process that they will no longer see their loved one. They may have questions about why people die; what happens when they die; if dying hurts; where people go when they die. Depending on what is done with the person’s remains they may have concerns about their loved one being buried in the ground and possibly being trapped there. They might want to know if cremation hurts.
Whatever their questions, seek clarification if you aren’t sure what information they are looking for. Provide basic factual answers and allow them to guide the conversation. They will ask more questions if you haven’t given enough information to satisfy their curiosity. Don’t respond with big answers that may overwhelm their ability to process the information.
Explain your beliefs
Whether you are religious or not, kids will have heard about the concept of a heaven or afterlife depending on the dominant religions in your community and school. For those in religious families these will be concepts that kids are vary familiar with and it may provide them with comfort. They may have questions about spirits, souls and ghosts.
If you do not believe in any form of any afterlife, explain to your kids that while some people believe in a heaven or reincarnation, you do not. This is my case. When I talked with my ten year old about my dad and death in general, I told her that I don’t believe there is anything that happens after we die. I told her that is the reason I believe we need to make the most of the time we have. I told her that we live on in the memories of others.
We talked about my dad and how we will remember him. I talked with her about what I had learned from my dad and how I was using those lessons to be a better dad for her and that was another way that Poppa would live on in our memories. She talked about how she remembers that whenever he visited we would order Chinese food.
If you aren’t certain what happens when someone dies, it is ok to tell your kids that you don’t know what happens. Really none of us know what happens after someone dies, so we should all be acknowledging that we don’t know for certain what happens before we explain our beliefs.
Watch your language
There are a lot of euphemisms and language around death that can be confusing to kids. We talk about people passing away and dying in their sleep. We speak about people dying because they were sick or old. If we are not cautious in how we speak about death, we can cause fears in our children. We don’t want our kids to be worried that they might fall asleep and never wake up or that we as their parents might die in our sleep. We also don’t want them to be afraid every time someone they know gets sick. And old? We are all old in the eyes of a child and we don’t want them to worry about how all us old people could keel over at any moment.
Be sure to be specific about the types of illness that may cause death and that dying in your sleep usually only happens when someone is already dying. Of course there are many instances of accidental death and it is harder to reassure them that they are safe in a car if someone they know dies in a car crash, especially if it was through no fault of their own.
Consider how you will speak with your kids about funerals, burials and/or cremation. If you decide to take them to a funeral or memorial service, consider how they will feel at the service. Children may be overwhelmed by a bunch of adults crying. Ensure they are sitting with someone who will be prepared to leave the room with them if needed.
Think about how they will react to the idea of burying or cremating bodies. When discussing cremation it is often better not to talk about the body being burned to turn it to ash. Tell them their loved one no longer needed their body. Describe the process as one where the body is put into a room and turned into a fine ash. It is important to note that their loved one was not hurt by this process.
I found it helpful and I hope my 10 year old daughter did too when we talked about cremation to talk about different traditions. We talked about why people might chose to bury or cremate the body.
She had asked me at the memorial service “what is in the box daddy?” I made the box for my dad’s ashes and referenced it in my eulogy as an analogy for our relationship. So she was curious about the contents and why it was important. I was only able to answer that Poppa was in the box. I told her we could talk about it more later. Once I had time to think and prepare for the conversation I asked her if she had more questions. I’m not sure that she fully understood, but I answered all of her questions at the time.
Read a book
Books are a great resource if you aren’t sure how to start the conversation or prepared because you are dealing with your own grief. You can find many books out there written for kids with a variety of perspectives on death. Ask a friend, your community, a librarian or book seller for recommendations of books to suit your needs.
Share your feelings
It is ok to cry. In all likelihood you are having this conversation with your child because one of your loved ones has also died. If you are anything like me and your kids don’t often see you cry, they might be concerned when they see it happen. That is ok. It is a great opportunity to show them that sometimes daddies cry and that it is normal. Share with them how you are feeling and your sense of loss. At the same time, ask them how they are feeling, give them space to share their emotions too. You can help them to understand how they are feeling and process those emotions.
Hugs all around
Everyone needs a hug. When my dad died, my kids were awesome and they propped me up with their hugs. When my daughter and I talked about my dad and death we helped each other feel better with hugs. My three year old wanted in on the action too and climbed up on the couch to join us. I think we all felt better as a result of our hug pile. Hugs are the best answer to the sadness that comes with the death of a loved one. Pass them around liberally!