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Sunday, May 18, 2014

talking to your young child about death

Recently my grandmother died. I found myself so caught up in my own grief and crying moments, that I was having a difficult time figuring out exactly what to say or how to handle my son's response to knowing his Great grandmother passed away. He's four, so I wasn't really sure if he'd get it, or even know what we were talking about. My 2-year-old didn't notice a thing and doesn't really know her great-grandmother so that was easier. My son though had lots of questions.

After just going through this, I thought it could be helpful to some other mom. I wish I'd looked into this before her passing, as it would have been easier if we'd been prepared with what we intended to say to our son.

Hope this helps.

Before you lose someone
Talk to your partner about your religious or other beliefs about the afterlife. Have that conversation ahead of time so you know where the other is at, so that you aren't caught off guard by your young child's incessant questions that need responses. Decide ahead of time how you'll answer some of those questions about where the deceased person has gone, why we can't see her anymore, when we can see her again, where her things went, etc. It'll be easier in the moment if you've already thought of this ahead of time. 

I'm a big fan of bibliotherapy, reading books to help children process events in their life. Here are a few that seem like they would be great books for children. You can read these ahead of time or after the passing of a loved one. I think they would especially be helpful afterward, as it helps you speak when you aren't able to find the words you are looking for during a confusing and stressful time. 

Photos from

When someone is sick
The week before my grandmother passed I went to visit her every other night, as we knew the time was coming closer. I explained to my son that his great-grandmother was sick because she was very old, she was very tired and weak so I was visiting her to help her know I love her and help her feel OK. 

Only answer their questions, don't elaborate or go on and on. They don't need a big explanation. Just keep it simple, to the point, and really just answer their question. His questions had nothing to do with death at that point, so I focused on how she wasn't feeling well. 

You should be careful with talking about sickness, too, depending on your child's age, as some kids will think they could get sick or "catch" what the sick person has, when in an example of cancer they cannot catch that like a cold. Again, just be simple when answering their questions. 

Resources for when someone is sick:

Honesty, reassurance help children cope when a grandparent is ill

8 Ways to Prepare Your Child for a Grandparents' Death

How can I talk to young children about a grandparent's cancer?

After the death of a loved one
I read in a Hospice pamphlet about just saying the truth, "She died." Not coming up with some elaborate story, but instead just saying the truth. If we say "we lost her" or "she's gone" kids are creative and imaginative. They don't really get the finality of that. Also, you don't want to just say she was "so sick" because kids get sick all the time, and they will associate being sick and what happened to their great-grandparent as something that could happen to them now, which is scary. 

From an article above: 

"Keep Kids Healthy warns against using euphemisms for death when explaining it to younger children. Telling them their grandmother has gone to sleep forever or has gone away on a permanent trip can cause fears. Youngsters think literally and may be afraid to go to bed or to go away somewhere because they will never come back."

So when my son asked me why I was crying, I told him I just found out that his great-grandmother had died. She was very old, and she was sick so her body wasn't strong enough anymore, so she died. He asked where she went. I told him heaven. He asked where heaven was. I told him up in the sky. He asked how far up there, can he see her? I said way up with the clouds, she was probably sitting up on the clouds watching us. I said we can't see her because she's too far up there and probably busy. I told him at night when the clouds are gone we can see the stars and think of her, too, because stars are near heaven, too. 

I kept it simple and just answered his questions. I explained why I was crying, because it was sad to me to not see my grandmother anymore, that I'll miss her. I felt weird crying in front of my son... but my husband reassured me, this is normal, this is something kids should see, emotions, feelings, and how we cope and get through tough times. 

So I just cried when it happened, but didn't overly get emotional in front of my kids. It's OK to have your feelings. Just make sure if you are too upset, you get someone else to step in and care for your children while you are grieving. It's OK for kids to see you upset, it's a natural thing, but overly upset may scare them or make them worry about you. Don't hold those emotions in, instead ask for your partner to take over bath and bed routine for a few days until you are back to feeling OK. 

A few other things to try when talking to your child about death after losing someone:
1. Remember to stay age appropriate. I have had many conversations this past week with my 4-year-old about losing his great-grandmother, but with my 2-year-old we haven't even discussed it because she doesn't understand. Keep things appropriate to what they developmentally are ready to talk about.

2. Ask how they are feeling. Share your feelings, "I feel sad because I wish I could see her one more time." Ask how they feel when they miss someone? 

3. Ask if they have special memories about their great-grandmother that are funny to think about, and remind them that it's great to think of fun memories of their loved one. If they want, you could give them a picture of the person to hold onto. 

4. Stop what you are doing when they are ready to talk. Kids are funny, they could be in the middle of something, running around playing, or playing a game, and randomly ask you "what's heaven like, Mom?" or "do you think great-grandma is having fun right now?" or "why can't we see her anymore?" When they ask these random questions in the middle of you doing dishes or doing paperwork, stop and be present with them. Don't turn it into this long drawn out conversation, but stay with them until the moment passes. Be there for them. 

5. Don't talk about all of the adult details in front of the kids. Just like you typically don't talk money problems or bills in front of the kids because they don't need to hear it, try to avoid talking about funeral preparations and how other loved ones are handling the death in front of your kids. They are kids, they don't need that information. 

More resources for after someone has died:

The Toughest Talk You'll Ever Have

Talking to Children About Death

How to Help Children When Their Grandmother Has Died

Talking to Kids About Death

Helping Your Child Deal With Death

How to talk to your preschooler about death

This one is my favorite. It really explains kids' take on death from a developmental stance. Also, at the bottom of this article are links to how to talk to kids about death of a pet, etc. Good resources. 
How to Talk to Kids About Death

Attending funerals
If you have your child attend a wake or funeral service is a personal decision that only you can make best for your child. Some children will not be affected much by these events, others will be very nervous or anxious going through something like this. You should talk to your partner and other loved ones to decide how this would go for your family.

One thing to consider is your own response to the passing of this loved one. If at the funeral you feel you will be upset, crying, or just needing space to grieve, it is probably best not to include your children in the event, if they do not need that closure piece themselves.

For me, my children are coming with us to the service, mainly because all of our caregivers will be at the event, so we don't really have someone to watch them. However, they will be downstairs in the church with their aunt, playing, while I'm upstairs at the service. I am reading the eulogy, so I don't want to be asking my kids to be quiet or sit still while preparing myself mentally to read words of remembrance in front of our family. I want to be focused, present, totally in the moment... things that aren't easy to do with kids who need you. I need this time to really grieve and feel whatever it is I'm going to feel. It's OK for my kids to not have to sit through that. I also don't really think they are at an age to understand why we will be all sad in one room, not playing or talking, so it's easiest if they avoid this part. After, when we gather for food and family, my kids will be there and will be a welcomed distraction and funny thing for us to smile at!

It's whatever works best for your family. Thinking ahead about this is important.

Resources about kids attending funerals:

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