When someone close to you passes away, your entire network of family and friends are likely to be affected. Even if a death was expected, this is bound to be an emotionally turbulent time, and feeling overwhelmed, confused and stressed are all natural process as we grieve. For children, however, the grieving process can be even more confusing and distressing, especially if it is their first time experiencing a loss. How do you talk to children about death? Learn how to use children’s literature to address grief and anxiety.
Tips on How to Talk to Children About Death
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Of course, children deal differently with the concept of death and the process of grieving depending on their age and maturity. Whatever their age, though, a loss tends to affect children in different ways than it does adults, and this means that a loss can be much more difficult to reconcile.
While it is never easy to talk to children about these topics (many adults even find it challenging to discuss it amongst themselves), there are ways in which you can make this process easier for the younger members of your family, helping them to express their grief in a healthy way.
Start Discussions About Death Early
No parent or parental figure wants to talk about death with their children. Perhaps it’s indicative of the way we view the concept of death in our society, but the truth is that it can be a depressing and distressing topic, and most of us want our children to grow up happy and innocent for as long as possible.
However, the earlier a child is exposed to the concept of death – ideally before it affects them on a personal level – the easier it will be for them to understand what is going on when a friend or relative dies in the future. If you’re struggling to integrate these discussions naturally with your child, psychologists often suggest pointing out the life cycles of living things around us, and reflecting on death through the prism of the natural world.
For example, Ashleigh Schopen, a Certified Child Life Specialist, has found that using a dead potted plant as his child’s first exposure to the concept of death has been helpful. Other examples may include owning pets with relatively short lifespans (e.g. hamsters or guinea pigs). You can even draw their attention to things like dead insects or rotten fruit, and explaining the permanence of death this way.
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Turn to Media or Films To Start Discussions About Death
Films offer a way of not only spending time with your little ones, but also helping to open up discussions about difficult topics. Many childhood favourites out there deal with adult themes in a way that is still accessible for children, death being one of them. A few famous examples of films that deal with character deaths and can help to introduce this discussion include The Lion King (loss of a parent), Finding Nemo (loss of a parent), Bambi (loss of a parent), Coco (loss of other relatives) and Big Hero 6 (loss of a brother AFTER losing parents).
The good thing about using films or other forms of media for these discussions is that they bring the topic of loss into your home in a natural way. While being somewhat divorced from the reality of your own lives, they give your child a point of reference that they can understand and relate to, providing some context when they do experience loss.
There are some wonderful children’s books that help children process grief.
The Memory Box introduces the idea of creating a memory box or other hands-on memorial. This can help your children memorialize that loved one they lost and process their grief.
In I’ll Be the Water, a dying grandfather comforts his grandson by reminding him that love and memory will continue to keep the grandson close to his grandfather even after the grandfather is gone. This book features stunning language and illustrations.
In Always Sisters, Saira Mir deals with the grief of a child who has lost a sister without even getting to meet her. Sharhzad Maydani’s illustrations capture the complexity of emotions, and the turmoil this loss brings, while also echoing the book’s hopeful message.
Be Mindful of the Language You Use to Discuss Death
Far more difficult than preparing your child for the concept of death is having to break the news to them that someone they know has died. The first time you share this news with them will shape their experience going forward. This means that it is important that you use language that will help them understand, while also minimizing their distress.
For many children, the main struggle they have with understanding the concept of death is its permanence. With many examples of reanimation in popular media, and ‘playing dead’ being a popular game, it’s easy for children to believe that a person’s body will be fixed, or that they will eventually come back.
For this reason, it’s often important to avoid euphemisms such as “gone to sleep” that will give children the wrong impression, and obfuscate what has really happened. This process may be easier if you have already discussed the concept of death with your child, but using clear and simple language will allow them the space to think, and to ask any questions they might have.
As difficult as it may be, it is important that you explain to your child that their loved one is not coming back should they ask. Let them know that it is okay and valid to feel sad and to miss them. Share your own feelings if this feels appropriate. Once they understand this, it will give you an opportunity to help them process any negative emotions they may experience.
Allow Children to See How You Process Grief
You cannot expect a child to process and understand grief in a healthy way if you yourself do not. Children notice and understand far more than we think. Showing them that you are grieving and experiencing emotion will give them permission to do the same.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should impose your way of grieving onto your child. They will find their own way of dealing with the loss, even if it means taking time out for themselves to think. It is also normal for children to seem unaffected by loss, but it is important to be prepared for any emotional response at any time.
If your child reactions with emotion or tears, then it is important that you validate and listen to them. If you also feel the need to cry, then don’t try and hide it from your child.
It’s second nature for most of us to hide our tears and struggles from those younger than us, but being a supportive figure doesn’t always have to mean faking happiness. Show your child that grown ups struggle with grief too, and that they are not alone or strange in feeling this way.
Include Children in Funeral Plans When a Loved One Dies
Just like adults, children are usually better at dealing with difficult situations if they are occupied and feel as though they are a part of something. As hard as losing someone close to you may be, having the chance to remember them and say goodbye with those you love can provide strength and solidarity in a time of sadness.
Including a child in various activities and decisions will not only take their mind off things; it will also make them feel connected to the person they’ve lost, even though they are no longer around.
For many of us, this is one of the most important ways in which we learn how to move on and deal with loss throughout our entire lives. By engaging with the funeral planning process, they will begin to understand that though they may not be here physically, their memory lives on in those that remain, and that reminiscing about the good moments can bring a sense of contentment and empowerment.
Of course, it is also important to prepare your child for what they might see or experience during a funeral service, as there may be imagery that will upset them. That’s why communicating and checking in with your child is just as important during this time as it is when you first break the news.
Talking to Children About Death is Challenging, but Important.
Introducing and even normalizing the concept of death for a child is never easy. Yet, while our instincts may tell us to shield them from this, it is important that these issues be dealt with head-on, albeit in a sensitive manner. Grief and loss will be as much of a part of their life as their relationships, careers and key life experiences, so preparing them for it is as important as teaching them how to take their first steps.
How do you talk to the children in your life about death?
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Carol Lawrence works with Harold Wood Funeral Services, friendly and welcoming funeral directors in Essex. She regularly writes on topics of grief, as well as both the practical and emotional side of funeral planning.