Parents play a pivotal role in helping children process the death of a loved one. Many factors determine a child's understanding of death and the emotions associated with it. Consider the following five guidelines when talking to your child about death.
1. Be Honest
Be gentle but honest when sharing news of someone's death. Use the concrete term "died" rather than phrases like "went to sleep" or "passed away." Otherwise kids may be more confused, have more questions, and in some cases have more fears if they don't understand death's finality.
2. Keep Your Child's Age in Mind
Four-year-olds don't comprehend death as easily as eight-year-olds do. Parents of young children can try using different methods to help process the concept.
An example is a butterfly's life cycle, a topic kids often learn about in preschool and kindergarten and one that child psychologists sometimes use to explain death to young children. Children learn that once a caterpillar becomes a butterfly it can never be a caterpillar again. The concept is analogous to death and can help very young kids understand that when people die they can never be the same as when they were alive.
3. Be Prepared for Different Reactions
Like adults, kids deal with death in different ways. Some appear unaffected while others experience problems like separation anxiety or having trouble sleeping. Young kids who are unable to verbalize their feelings might also regress in behavior or act out aggressively.
4. Keep Routines Normal
While adults may make drastic changes to help get through the death of someone close, such as remodeling the house or even moving, the approach often doesn't work with young kids.
A common adult reaction may be to put away photos of the person who died if visual reminders are too difficult. But visual pieces help kids process feelings. Creating memory books or looking at mementos can be therapeutic.
5. Be Aware of Your Own Emotions
Processing your own grief is critical to helping a child process theirs. Explaining feelings like anger and sadness is important. If parents find themselves struggling with grief, speaking to a counselor can help and in turn help them guide a child through their emotions.
Check out the following children's books that present the topic of death in a gentle way. Parents can use the stories as guidelines for a discussion about death and dying.
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst (age 3 years)
- Gentle Willow: A Story for Children About Dying by Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. (Ages 4 and up)
- Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert (Ages 8 and up)
- What On Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? by Trevor Romain (Ages 5-10)
- When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown (Ages 1-8)
Dealing with the death of someone close is never easy. It's even tougher for children who might not understand its finality and struggle to work through unfamiliar emotions. Through gentle, honest conversation, kids and parents can begin the healing process together.