Goodbye For Now: Talking to Young People About Death and Dying

Walking through grief and loss is never easy, even when you have decades of experience doing just that. For a child who has never experienced the death of a loved one, it can be both terribly sad and frighteningly confusing.

It’s tempting to protect a child from the pain of loss, but downplaying the reality and permanency of death does a child a great disservice.

Imagine, for instance, how confusing it would be to be told Grandma is “just sleeping.” That child will then expect to see Grandma again when she wakes up, or become terrified that other loved ones will go away forever if they go to sleep at night. Speaking openly, using age-appropriate language and offering lots of support are the best ways to help a child cope with death.

Ideally, all adults in the child’s life will take their cues from the child’s parents about how to talk about death, particularly if you don’t share the same religious beliefs. If one trusted adult talks about seeing the deceased in Heaven and another tells the child Heaven doesn’t exist, that gets confusing. Here are some tips on how to speak to everyone from toddlers to teens about death and dying.

Talking to Toddlers and Preschoolers

Researchers have found that children younger than five typically can’t grasp the concept that death is permanent and irreversible. Because of this, you should use simple language and literal explanations to explain death. Say something like “Grandpa’s body stopped working because he was old. We won’t be able to see him anymore. But we will always remember him and love him.”

Expect for young children to repeat their questions or express confusion over and over again. Keep your answers the same, saying things like “The doctors weren’t able to fix his body” and “His body got very sick, and then it stopped working.”

It’s difficult for a child this age to understand that every living thing, including herself and her family, will eventually die. If she starts to ask about this, you can say something like “One day your body will stop working too. But that will happen a very, very long time from now.”

Kids this age are hugely comforted by routine and consistency. Repeating the same information may feel frustrating, but doing so helps the child work through this new experience.

Talking to School-Age Children

Typically a child can understand that death is permanent by about age seven. Just as you would with a toddler, use concrete and literal language when talking to a school-age child. You can explain the basics of the illness or accident that caused the person’s death. Children this age also need to understand that the condition that caused the death isn’t something that’s likely to happen to them when they get sick. Say something like “Marie had cancer, which is a sickness that made some unhealthy cells grow in her body. It’s a very serious sickness, not like when you have a cold or when Dad had the flu. The doctors gave her lots of medicine, but they weren’t able to fix the cancer and she died.”

Help a school-age child cope by encouraging him to come to you with any questions or to share any feelings. Explain that whatever he’s feeling is okay.

Talking to Teenagers

A teenager in your life may understand the permanence and irreversibility of death, but don’t expect her to react to loss the same way an adult might. Teens are still children, and it’s normal for them to be confused, angry, sad, scared and more, all at the same time.

When a teen in your life experiences death, explain what caused it and give her some time and space to sort through her feelings. Remind the teen that you are always available to talk, answer questions or just listen, but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t take you up on the offer. Kids this age tend to prefer talking to peers or people outside of their families, so encourage her to speak to her friends or guidance counselor if she doesn’t want to talk to you. You might also suggest she write in a private journal or spend some time making art that expresses her feelings.

Grieving teenagers sometimes take unsafe risks or act out at home or in school. Adults should monitor her behavior closely and reach out to the school guidance counselor or a grief counselor for help if necessary.

Preparing for Death

When a child’s loved one is dying, don’t hide it from him or her. If possible, you may want to give the child the chance to visit with the person. Let it be his choice. For instance, say something like, “Uncle Peter is very sick, and the doctors aren’t able to help him get better. He is going to die soon. Would you like to go visit him?” If the child does want to go, talk about what will happen when you get to the hospital and what Uncle Peter’s body might look like right now.

Coping After Death

Don’t shield a child from a funeral or wake because you’re worried it will be too sad. Instead, let the child choose whether to attend. Again, use age-appropriate language to describe exactly what happens at a funeral. Talk about who will be there, how people will act, what the child will see and whether there will be an open coffin, closed coffin or cremation urn. Don’t push or shame a child who chooses not to attend.

Grieving doesn’t end when the funeral does. Help a child remember the deceased by creating a memory book or planting a tree in the person’s honor, and set aside time for the two of you to celebrate the life of the loved one who has passed.

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Published | Category: Cremation Society.