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Talking with Children about Death

My brother died last week.  It was sudden.  He was way too young.  The world has lost a kind, caring soul.

One of his many gifts was an amazing eye for seeing beauty and humanity through his camera.  Here’s one of the last pictures he took of my daughter, along with her words (as he recorded them):

talking with children about death

Clap, clap.

Jump up and clap.

Do the bubble dance.

Slap them, kick them.

Hit them with a stick.

Jump and clap.

Silly bubble dance.

My daughter and I have been having lots of talks about death.  She’s been through the death of a cat so we had a vocabulary with which to speak about death.  I think many times adults avoid talking about death with children because they don’t realize that children process the information much differently than adults.  For example adults often lead with their emotions, especially fear of experiencing the pain of loss.  In contrast, children (even teens) start with understanding, a sort of mastery of ideas.  Some of what they are attempting to master includes: what does “dead” mean, what does “forever” mean, what do the feelings that others around me are expressing mean, and will this happen to me/am I safe?

There are some simple tools for talking with children about life-threatening illness and death. Here are some of my top tips:

  • Expect lots of questions and amped up energy, not tears.  Remember, most kids cry because they haven’t gotten their way, not because they are sad.  They really don’t comprehend what death means, what forever means, or even emotional loss.  They will more likely react to the intense emotions of the adults around them through questions and bouncing off the walls.
  • Give your child information about what is happening.  Your child is trying to make sense of what’s going on, even if they seem completely disinterested.  Use simple, direct language in manageable chunks.  For example, “passed,” “is gone,” “is in heaven” are all abstract and vague terms.  Your child will better understand more concrete language such as “Grandma had a sickness that made her body stop working. When someone’s body stops working we say that they are dead.  Now we remember Grandma in our hearts but we won’t see her body anymore.”
  • Give your child reassurance that you are able to take care of him, even if you are feeling big feelings like sadness.  Remind her that sometimes people cry when they are sad.  Some other things your child is wondering: will I or will mom or dad get sick and die also (“Grandma had a sickness that people get when they are very old.  Children, mommies and daddies don’t usually get this type of sickness.  It is very different from a cold, which our bodies can handle just fine.”); will I see the person who died again (“No. Once someone body stops working it won’t start again.  We won’t see their body again but we can always look at pictures and we can remember them in our hearts.”)
  • Expect to see lots of play about hospitals, funerals, and death.  Play is the work and language of children.  It is how they make sense of and master their worlds.  Sometimes these themes can feel distressing to adults but they are most likely not distressing to your child.  Don’t stop the play but do pay attention and offer information if it seems like the play seems “stuck,” never reaching any point of resolution or variation.  Teens “play” often shifts to expression through art or music, or physical outlets like wrestling.
  • While all of these tips apply to teens, there are a couple of additional points: teens often respond to grief by “checking out.”  They have an extremely hard time staying present with the intensity of emotions.  While it’s hard to understand, know that even though they aren’t talking with you, they ARE talking with their friends and most likely getting the support they need.  Of course teens have access to a lot more destructive and dangerous coping strategies so it’s important to keep an eye out for changes in behavior that feel off from what you know about your teen.

Even more than knowing what to say to your child, it is essential to care for yourself during the loss of someone important.  Start with:

  • You might have big feelings.  Don’t avoid them for the sake of your child.  Here’s what I know for sure – you will not be overcome by your grief.  It will most likely hit you in intense but brief waves.  It is ok for your child to see you expressing sadness.  She may need reassurance that you are ok, that you can still take care of her, and that it is normal for people to cry when they feel sad.
  • You will feel exhausted.  There’s no way around this.  Grief takes an immense amount of energy.  Keep things simple.  Drink plenty of water.  Eat nourishing food.  Give and receive lots of hugs. Move your body in gentle and enjoyable ways.  Get out in nature.  Rest, rest, rest.
  • You will feel short-tempered.  The energy you usually put into parenting will be consumed by your grieving, much of the time. Give yourself permission and graces to be where you are, in this moment, with the feelings you have.  Trust that your child knows you love her and that you can always go back and repair with her if you’ve snapped at her.
  • You will want to rely on your basic self-care routines.  Good thing you’ve incorporated self-care routines into your everyday life! But don’t worry if you are starting from scratch.  Trust that your body knows what it needs.  Start by drinking plenty of water and napping.  Take a deep breath, in through your nose and out slowly through your mouth, every time you can remember to do so.
  • This is your new normal, the absence of this person from your life.  It will hit you in waves, throughout the upcoming year, and at other times in the future.  Keep talking with your loved ones and practicing your self-care routines, as you never know when a grief wave will hit.

I hope these tools give you strength during a difficult time.  I also hope it’s something you experience infrequently and no time soon.  However, I know with certainty that you can handle it and that you will offer all the loving support your child needs.  If you feel like you need additional support in this area, please do not hesitate to contact me for a consultation, or post a question for the community.  Be well, mama.

2 comments

  1. laurie says:

    Hi Jennifer. I’m new to Mandalas. Just connected to this post. I’m so sorry for the loss of your brother. My younger brother died Jan. 30th, 2016. He was 45. Too soon, unexpected. Feels like part of me is gone. Thank you so much for this encouragement for communication, and especially self-care.

    • Jennifer says:

      Oh Laurie, I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s hard to make sense of young men dying. Welcome to Mandalas! I hope you continue to find gentleness and self-care tools here. I’m glad you found our little community!

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