Coping with the death of a family member is terribly difficult for anyone to deal with. For kids, it can be especially challenging. They may not be mature enough to fully grasp what death means or to understand the circumstances of the person’s death. They may be overcome with grief and not know how to cope with their loss. And for their parents, who need to explain what has happened and guide them through their grief, this process can be especially heart-wrenching, overwhelming, and confusing, as well.
Parents may wonder what to say to their child about their loved one’s death—and how to say it. Concerns include how much detail to provide, how to help their child deal with and express their feelings, how to share while remaining composed, and for the littlest kids, how to explain the finality and reality of death. Read on for our comprehensive guide on how to talk to your kids about the death of a family member. Learn what to say, how to provide comfort, and when to get help if your child is struggling with their grief.
How to Talk to Children About a Family Member’s Death
When talking to their kids about a death in the family, parents typically hope to offer comfort and understanding rather than adding to any confusion, pain, or sadness their child already feels. However, achieving this intention can be easier said than done, particularly as parents are likely also struggling with their own grief.
It’s common to not really know what to say and/or to feel a lot of apprehension about talking about such a painful and weighty topic with your child. The following suggestions can help you get started on having these difficult but important conversations.
Follow your gut
Obviously, each parent-child relationship is unique. And you know your child best. So, follow your instincts on how to broach the topic with your child. This includes how much to say, what to leave out, and how to answer their questions. Your heart may tell you when to ask questions or provide follow-up answers. And when to sit in quiet reflection with your child. Listen to your gut if it says your child needs more information (or less), a chance to vet, or more emotional support.
Speak from the heart. Don’t be afraid to tell your child the truth. For example, if they don’t really understand what death is, you can explain the difference between a person who is alive (breathing and with a heart beat) and someone who has died (no brain function, heart stopped, no breathing). If they wonder when their loved one will be coming home, you can tell them that, sadly, death means their loved one is not coming back.
Be matter of fact
Provide enough details so that they gain a full understanding of what happened, but not so much that they are left with unnecessarily or unsettling details. You also don’t need to tell them more than they ask. For example, you might tell them that their family memeber died but decide they don’t need to know about the exact circumstances or about the person’s last moments of life. It’s not a problem to tell them these details, but just consider if they are asking or need to know. If not, then simply state the information you deem important for them to understand.
Make it age-appropriate
Consider your child’s age, maturity, and developmental readiness to comprehend what you are telling them. Little kids may just need to understand that their loved one has gone to a different place and that they won’t see them anymore—but they still love them. Older kids can handle more details, but tailor your information to what you believe they can handle. The key is to tell them what you think they should know in order to fully process the death.
Share your emotions
Don’t be afraid to tell your child how you feel. Share your grief. Name the emotions you are feeling and model how to talk about them. This way your child knows that they are not the only one feeling a strong mix of emotions, whether that is feeling sad, confused, angry, or whatever else comes up for them in response to the death. You’re also giving them the framework to discuss their family member and to begin the coping process.
Also, know you don’t always need to keep your composure. It’s OK to cry, break down even. Yes, you may aspire to keep the extremes of your emotion to yourself, but letting them see your grief can also help them feel connected to you in this difficult time.
Be a safe space
Welcome your child’s feelings, questions, and coping style. Everyone experiences and processes grief differently. There isn’t just one right way. Some people seek camaraderie with other loved ones. Others would rather reflect on their own. Some people may grieve loudly, such as screaming, crying, laughing, or talking a lot when faced with a death. Others become more internal and quietly grieve. Let your child have the freedom and support to process their loss in the way that suits them best—while also ensuring they have the support they need and aren’t suffering in silence.
Share your beliefs
Let your child know what you believe happens after death. Let them ask questions and question those beliefs. Depending on your faith tradition or other belief system, you may feel very sure about what happens to people when they die. Or you may have more uncertainly. You don’t need to have all the answers. Simply tell your child what you think, even if it’s that you don’t know.
Offer coping suggestions
There are many ways kids can deal with their emotions of grief. Talk to your child about different coping methods that may work for them. These ideas may help them process their feelings or simply offer a distraction. Both things can be very helpful. Some ideas include yoga, listening to music, talking to friends, seeing a therapist, drawing or doing other art projects, doing athletics, sticking to a routine, going on a walk, looking at pictures of the loved one, reading a book, mediation, or writing in a feelings journal. You can also let your child know which coping techniques you use. You might offer to do one or more of them together, if you think that might be beneficial to your child.
When to get help
Let your child know that you are there for them. You are there to talk, hold them, answer their questions, and get them help, if needed. Talking to another trusted adult, their pediatrician, and/or a therapist can be very helpful for kids who are experiencing the loss of a loved one. Reaching out for help is especially important if your child seems to be really struggling. Again, trust your gut on this. Of course, any kid coping with the death of a family member may be especially sad, reclusive, reactive, or angry. But, after some time has passed, if these feelings are impacting their view on life, overwhelming them with sadness or other negative emotions, or stopping your child from doing the things they normally do (such as school, sports, hobbies, or spending time with friends), then it’s time to get help.
There’s no getting around the fact that talking to your child about the death of a loved one is going to be hard. But if you can take a few moments to collect yourself and put some consideration into what you say to them, these conversations can be a bit easier on you both.
Also, while we shared plenty of helpful suggestions to follow above, you can also wing it. The point is that there’s really not one perfect way to handle this situation. And unfortunately, there’s no way to shield your child from the heartache of this experience. So, trust yourself, trust your kid, and offer compassion, love, and as much comfort as you can. And, remember, the bottomline is that if you’re speaking from the heart, you’re doing it right.