Explaining death to a child

August 10, 2012

Fair warning: This is a column about talking to your child about death. Not exactly the feel-good read of the summer. So I understand if your reaction is “I don’t really want to deal with this now.” That’s fine, but do me a favor. Clip this out of the newspaper or print it off your computer or bookmark it. Because at some point, whether it’s a parent, grandparent, neighbor or pet, your child is probably going to have to deal with death.

Helping your child cope with that loss is an important but far from easy milestone for both of you. Here are some things to think about in preparing for those kinds of conversations.

Be direct

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my years as KidsPost editor, it’s to use the simplest, most direct language possible when dealing with kids. This is especially hard when dealing with death. The word “died” may seem too harsh, too final to say to a child. But the euphemisms we might be tempted to use may leave them with profound misunderstandings of what has happened.

A former colleague of mine lost her husband (an example of a euphemism bound to confound a child. Imagine this conversation: “You lost him? I can help you find him.”) when her youngest daughter was 5. In an attempt to soften the blow, she told her daughter, “Your daddy has gone to be with the angels.” Only years later did the daughter confide that she thought her father had chosen to leave her. The daughter spent much of her childhood being mad and confused. That clearly wasn’t this loving mother’s intention.

Never assume that kids understand what you’re saying, no matter how old they are. Ask them to repeat back in their own words what you’ve just said to them. If they don’t get it, you have to try again. Five-year-olds are inherently literal-minded, but even teenagers can misread metaphors.

Prepare when possible

Sudden death is particularly hard for anyone to grasp, but often the deaths that children confront — those of older relatives or beloved pets — can be anticipated. Don’t assume that kids will notice Grandpa’s declining health and extrapolate that that means he may not live much longer. A death that seems obvious to you may come out of the blue to your child if you haven’t talked about it first.

My dad, the grandfather to my 16-year-old sons, passed away last month. He had been sick for two years but had only recently started to show signs of decline. When we went to visit him for his 81st birthday in May, I told the boys that while we certainly hoped he’d be around for a long time, they should be aware that the number of visits with him might be limited. As a result, the boys spent most of the long weekend just sitting with him and talking to him. When the end came, they were sad but not surprised.

Just last week, we lost our 15-year-old dog. I made sure to point out the signs of Sirius’s (named by the boys after the Harry Potter character) failing health. The death of an animal can be deeply traumatic for a child, whether the animal dies at home or at the vet’s. Please avoid the phrase “put to sleep.”

Encourage them to do something

We often shield children from the ceremonies surrounding death, and at times that’s wise. Not many 3-year-olds do well at a five-hour visitation. But remember those rituals are part of the healing process, so “protecting” children from them isn’t always the best option. Encourage a child to write a letter or color a picture to express how much they loved their grandmother or their gerbil. Older children (say 10 and up) will probably benefit greatly from attending a wake or funeral where people are sharing memories of the person who has died. A little bit of family history can be passed along, and children also learn the value of both sympathy and empathy. My Christopher created a moving slide-show of photographs of my dad, which played in a loop at the visitation. It was a way for him to say goodbye to his grandfather in the medium — computers — that he was most comfortable with.

Explain that feelings continue

One of the hardest things for us to realize is that grief is not a linear process. You don’t feel a little better each day. You have good days and bad days. Kids don’t know this. They perhaps remember the physical pain from a broken finger and how it hurt a little less each day. So they may be confused when two weeks after the dog dies, they suddenly burst into tears, have a tantrum, pick a fight with their brother. They may not even think to associate the feelings and behaviors with the death. Explain that such emotions are normal and that they can always come to you to talk or just for a much-needed hug.

There are other very good resources out there about talking to kids about death, including a handout from the National Institutes of Health and at the kidshealth.org Web site.

Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.

Your take

8 Tell us about talking to a child about death by leaving a comment on this article at washingtonpost.com/ parenting or by e-mailing localliving@washpost.com with “Explaining death to a child” in the subject.

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