My mother died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, when I was in my late 20s and my father died of cancer four years later. Having never witnessed the grieving process up close before, I felt like something was wrong with me for the intensity of my grief on each parent’s death.
Now as a mother to two small girls, I want to speak to my children about their grandparents and also prepare them for my eventual passing. Living through the past pandemic year, and being inundated with constant news about illness and death, has only made this feeling more urgent. But like many parents, I have no idea about when or how to begin a conversation about death with a child. And apparently, I’m not alone, experts say.
Many parents — like my father — avoid speaking to their children about death because they want to protect their kids from sadness and pain, says Cara Mearns-Thompson, a licensed clinical social worker focused on grieving children and the co-founder of the Grief Club of Minnesota.
But there’s more than concern for their children that holds many parents back, says Vicki Jay, chief executive of the National Alliance for Children’s Grief. “It’s our own uncomfortableness with [the topic] that prevents us from opening up the discussion,” she says.
Yet as much as they might try, parents can’t protect children from seeing or hearing about death: about 1 in 14 children in the United States will lose a parent or sibling by the age 18, according to Judi’s House/JAG Institute. And according to a recent study in the Lancet, more than 1.5 million children worldwide — 114,000 in the United States — have lost a parent or primary caregiver due to the covid-19 pandemic, with more such losses expected.
It is never too early to speak to children about death, but in an age-appropriate manner, experts say.
“Death is a normal and natural part of our life and, therefore, there is not a specific point that a child reaches that you can say it is now okay to talk to them,” Mearns-Thompson says. “But instead it is woven into conversations throughout their life as they are learning and developing. If they are going for a walk and see a dead bird — even if it’s a 2-year-old, to talk about it, to point it out,” says Mearns-Thompson.
Children’s grief will also vary depending on their developmental stage, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“It is really based on their age, their brain development, their understanding of the finality of death and the irreversible nature of that. As they go through different stages and ages in their life, they will understand death in new and different ways,” Mearns-Thompson says.
“It is important to know that kids grieve differently than adults. And oftentimes, what may appear to be a frivolous play activity for children may actually be a very worthy way that they are working through grief,” says Linda Goldman, a therapist in Maryland whose work focuses on children and grief. Goldman, who has written several books on the subject, recalls working with a 5-year-old who had lost his mother. Goldman handed him a telephone and asked him if he’d like to call her. The little boy picked up the phone and began a conversation. “ ‘Hi mommy, I really miss you. How are you? Let me tell you about my day,’ ” Goldman says.
When speaking to children about death, it’s important for parents to use clear terminology so that a child isn’t confused by what has happened and why they are grieving, according to the National Alliance for Children’s Grief, which provides seven tips for talking with bereaved children and teens. As an example, even “a small child . . . will understand when someone dies their body stops working.”
“Using the word death is appropriate,” Goldman says. “ ‘Why do people die?’ a little child might ask. People die when they are very, very old or very, very sick or when the doctors and nurses can’t make their bodies work anymore. And you can vary that. ”
Mearns-Thompson says she would use the same principles when speaking to children from different age groups. “Telling them simple, and honest information and allowing their questions to lead to what information they may need more of,” she writes.
Goldman says it’s important to avoid euphemisms about death, which can create confusion and even complicate the grieving process.
“Society doesn’t realize just how harmful some popular cliches can be to the grieving process,” Goldman says.
Mearns-Thompson notes that saying someone has “passed away” or that the person is “sleeping” makes it hard for children to understand what has happened (and, others say, may create real uncertainty or even anxiety about what can happen when someone goes to sleep.)
That doesn’t mean you can’t speak to children honestly in an age-appropriate manner. Annie Sperling’s husband died of a virulent type of brain tumor in 2020 when her two children were ages 4 and 8. Sometimes “my [younger] daughter will say to me, ‘Is Daddy ever coming back? or ‘I would give my stuffed animal away just so I could have daddy back for one day,’ ” says Sperling, who lives near Minneapolis. “And as heart-wrenching as it is to tell her ‘no, Daddy isn’t coming back,’ I want to be honest and sometimes the truth can hurt, but I feel like by not telling her the truth it would only hurt her more in the end” by creating false hope.
Being honest with children also helps to establish trust, experts say.
For example, “if a death by suicide was kept a secret or explained in an untruthful manner, once the child figures out the true cause of death they may have mistrust for those closest to them that didn’t truthfully tell them the cause,” Mearns-Thompson writes.
Similarly, parents should be open to questions about the wide range of emotions children can feel, including sadness, guilt or even shame, according to the AAP.
Younger children, for instance, may assume the death of someone close to them was their fault because of the egocentrism of that age and magical thinking, which are common characteristics of that age group. Teenagers often want to know more details about death compared to younger children, Goldman says. For example: “What kind of cancer? Who was with Mom when she died?”
Young people have “this vivid imagination and they fill in the blanks with imagination,” Jay says. “It is important so that they don’t get misinformation or misguided, that we stay tuned into them and help them put the puzzle together by offering multiple opportunities to ask them questions and for them to ask us questions.”
When a parent loses a loved one, they also have an opportunity to teach their children how to grieve in a healthy way by modeling. “The best thing you can do for your kids . . . is model to them what a healthy grief experience is,” Jay says. “So it is okay to cry in front of your kids.”
Similarly, Sperling says, parents should encourage their children to express their emotions: “Whenever my kids are experiencing a tender moment, my words to them are, ‘Just let it out,’ ‘Just cry it out.’. . . It’s a way for them to communicate to me that they are sad and that they need me in that moment. I don’t ever want them to feel like if they are crying or feeling blue that they can’t express themselves to me.”
Naming the different emotions that you are feeling — as well as including children in remembrance rituals — are other ways to model healthy grief for children, Mearns-Thompson says.
“I always say speak your loved ones’ name because the moment you stop saying their name, the moment you stop looking at pictures and sharing stories, is the moment that that memory kind of fizzles away,” Sperling adds.
Despite how difficult that can be, I am trying to take Sperling and experts’ advice when speaking to my own children.
“These remind me of Grandpa Jack,” I said recently as I passed the Honey Nut O’s to my husband at breakfast. My dad religiously had either oatmeal or Cheerios for breakfast.
“Where is Grandpa Jack?” my 4-year-old asked. I told her Grandpa Jack died, as I had many times previously. She never reacted before.
“So . . . I’m never going to meet him?” she asked for the first time as she burst into tears.
“No, honey, you will not,” I replied.
“That’s so sad,” she said. And I nodded. And then she wiped her tears and jumped off her chair to play outside.