I was out with some friends the other day. They are anticipating the death of a family member and weren’t sure what to tell their children. Conversations about death are not easy, and often, we try to avoid those conversations. As a parent, we want to protect our children from hurt and we may find that we want to believe that children don’t know or aren’t capable of understanding what’s happening when a loved one has died.

As uncomfortable as this conversation can feel, it’s important that we share what has happened with our children, so that they are equipped to handle their grief. Remember, children of all ages experience grief.  

Below are a few tips to help you talk to the children in your life:

*Children need to understand that death is permanent. Terms like “passing away,” “gone to sleep,” or “we lost them” can be confusing for children. They may wonder if death will occur every time someone falls asleep. Although it might feel uncomfortable, don’t back away from using the words die, death and dead.

*If you are anticipating the death of a loved one, you might want to look into resources that can help you have developmentally appropriate conversations with your children, or find books/stories that will help your child understand what is happening. A wonderful resource is The Centering Corporation. You can visit their website at www.centering.org.

*Be patient and really listen without being judgmental. Listen carefully to what the child is asking and make your answer age appropriate. Your answers and level of detail will be different when talking to a 4 year old versus a 15 year old. Answer their questions but remember it’s also okay to say you don’t know. Try to keep the conversations short so they have an opportunity to process what you are saying.

*Let them know that people grieve differently and that there is not only one way to grieve. Talk to them about what they may see as people are grieving.

*Allow the children to grieve. Just as adults show their feelings at the loss of a loved one, we should also allow and expect that children will also go through a grieving process.

No matter your age, experiencing the death of a loved one hurts. Be upfront and honest with your child. Help them find age-appropriate ways to process their grief and express their feelings. Children need adults in their lives to be caring, loving, supportive, willing to listen and answer questions. Be generous with your hugs, kisses, and assurances of your love, and that you will always be by their side when they need you.

by Maria Farrell, Director, GriefWork: A National Servite Ministry of Compassion