It can sometimes be difficult to explain death to a child, especially if you’re processing grief yourself. Here are a few tips on what to do.
Death is one of the hardest concepts to explain to children, especially when you are emotional as well from having to say goodbye to a loved one. Despite the fact that death is all around them, children, especially toddlers, will not understand its permanence and that it happens to everyone and is inevitable.
How children display grief
Be prepared for a variety of reactions and often regressions in behaviours and routines (such as bed-wetting, a change in sleep and eating habits, or the way they speak).
Helping our children cope with loss is perhaps one of the most important life events we can help them through. Like adults, children experience grief after the death of a loved one or even the death of pet. However, children often display their grief in a different manner to adults. For example, some children may:
- appear to regress and act much younger than their age for a period of time (such as in speech, bedwetting and thumb-sucking)
- cry excessively
- appear not to care about the loss
- become irritable, moody or fearful
- display fits of anger or tantrums
- develop nightmares and sleep disturbances
- engage in boisterous play
- experience a loss of appetite
- become anxious about leaving a parent or sibling
- begin to ask to skip school regularly
- say they feel unwell (tummy aches or headaches)
- struggle to maintain concentration
- ask excessive questions about death or dying
The best way to support our children is to help them process their grief in healthy ways, rather than avoid it. Avoidance of grief will only lead to more issues in the long term.
Talking to children about death
It is important to address your child’s questions openly and honestly by giving brief, simple and age-appropriate answers.
In the video below, resident psychologist Collett Smart shares how to explain to a child about death and help them deal with grief.
Helping children process grief and overcome loss might include any of the following:
- Use concrete terms. Try to avoid terms like “passed on” or “fell asleep”, which can become confusing to a child.
- It is probably better to address concepts honestly using simple terms such as “Her body stopped working” or “She was very old”.
- Children can be fearful about death, so speaking simply and honestly about the loss, without giving too many details that are difficult for children to process is important.
- It is essential not to offer false hope, but to listen and then reassure them that your job is to keep them safe.
- Allow your children to ask the same questions many times, while kindly and patiently answering as simply as possible.
- Help children to choose ways to remember the person or pet in ways that are meaningful to them (you could create a memory box, make a photo album, plant a tree or set up a small memorial to visit at anniversaries).
- Get back to routines as soon as possible. Routines create a sense of safety and stability.
- Give your child permission to still experience times of joy and fun, without feeling guilty.
- Remember that no two children will react the same way.
- Make time to talk about the good memories.
Children will ask lots of “Why?” questions and these need to be acknowledged. It’s also important that you express your own feelings and emotions about the recent loss as your child will be acutely aware that you and others are upset.
Helping children process grief after a death
Help a child express and address their feelings and questions by reading stories about children whose pets or grandparents die, and allowing free play. These are two of the best ways to help the child process what is happening around them.
Reassure the child they are loved by all in the family and that you are there for them. Maintain their daily routines as these provide security for the child. It is also good to help the child memorialise the person, using flowers, drawing pictures or acknowledging how special the person was.
Every child will process death differently. The best thing you can do is be present and journey alongside the child.
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