This is part 2 of a series about talking to your children about death. It's a topic we rarely think we'll have to talk about, but one that I think as parents we should consider before the event is upon us. It's something we should prepare for ahead of time, that's why I'm writing this post. I hope it will help someone be prepared in the event that they lose someone close to them and need to explain to the children.
I work in a middle school as a school counselor, so my experience talking to teenagers about death comes from there.
Here are some tips I've found helpful when talking to teens about death:
- Talk about what the wake and funeral will be like. Really explain step by step what happens, especially if this is the first time they have attended one or if they were really young when they attended the last one so don't remember.
- Give them space to do something. Teenagers don't like things being out of their control, they are change makers. They want to DO something when they feel something unsettling. Encourage writing a letter or making a card for the person. They can keep this, share it with you, or even leave it at the wake or funeral for their loved one. Sometimes just having that "one last talk" with the person they are missing helps them.
- Give them choices, options. Don't force them to attend the wake or funeral. If they attend the wake, tell them they can sit in the other room and not see their loved one if open casket. If you really want them to be there, give flexibility to what is expected of them at the events. Don't force them to read or be pallbearers if it's uncomfortable for them. Teens need to feel like they have some control, especially if upset.
- Encourage them to share their feelings. Especially with boys, let them know it's OK to cry. Boys hold things in more than girls. Hug them. Let them know it's normal to feel this way. Let them see other males in the family crying or upset, it gives them freedom to do the same.
- Let them know it's OK to smile, laugh, be normal again. Sometimes they will naturally feel like laughing but think it's not OK for some reason since someone just died. Teens are liter, too. Death = sad, crying, not happy, so they need permission to be OK again. I've noticed this especially happens around their peers.
- Share your beliefs, listen to theirs. Talk about afterlife, heaven, what their beliefs are, share yours but let them figure out what they believe on their own. Don't force your beliefs on them, but yes, give them an idea of what life after death could be like. Many kids find comfort in believing in something, whatever your family believes is great.
- Follow up. They usually won't come to you... go to them. make it a normal, easy conversation...while you're driving, while doing dishes, etc. ask how they are, share how you are, that usually gets a conversation going.
- Share how you're feeling. Explain how it was for you when you were younger, their age, and lost someone. They need to know it's OK to feel angry or sad, etc. Use those words, give them the opportunity to share after you share.
- Accept their reaction as normal, even if it seems otherwise. Many teenagers will hear of someone passing, and then think of the only things/people they have lost and get all upset all over again. For example, if a high school student died, your middle school student will associate that with losing a pet years ago because it's their sadness. Let that be OK. Support them wherever their grief stems from. Teens feel fiercely and deeply. Let them own their feelings.
- Talk about coping skills. Encourage them to choose something that they can do to cope, to get through something, to feel better. This is an important conversation for kids to have, whether in relation to experiencing death or not. Ideas for coping skills for teenagers include:
- writing, drawing, painting, reading, watching TV or playing games, taking a walk, playing basketball, throwing a ball, punching a pillow if angry, calling a friend, talking to a trusted adult or parent, crying (saying this outright helps them feel less weird doing it), listening to music, thinking of good, happy memories of their loved one; etc.
Resources for talking to teens about death: