Take it from me, it’s not easy talking to kids about death. My youngest brother died when my daughter was a year old. They were close, and his death was unexpected. While processing my own grief, I researched how to talk to my daughter about the uncle she lost. Here’s what I’ve learned, and what’s worked. I found this podcast episode especially helpful, featuring a grief counseling center for children.
How kids grieve
Yes, everyone grieves differently. Kids also grieve differently from adults.
- Erratic moods - when a child is grieving, it’s totally normal for them to cry one minute, then giggle and play two minutes later. Play is their escape and can serve as a coping mechanism.
- Anger - kids often become angry at the person or pet they’ve lost. They are processing feelings of abandonment and confusion.
- Regression - some kids regress back to bed-wetting or baby-talk after experiencing a loss. This is normal.
- Repeating and fixating - when a child is processing death, they may fixate on and repeat details they are working through. They do it out loud, and it can awkward when they describe the death of their pet to another kid at the playground… but it’s actually healthy. It’s evidence they are working through it!
How to support kids through grief
Your child will look to you to help them process their grief. This is an important time to mirror healthy grieving. Don’t hide your emotions from them. Running to the other room to cry shows makes kids think sadness and tears are shameful.
- Answer their questions - They will pepper you with questions about death, and you should answer them directly, using simple language. Avoid euphisms like “Grandma went to sleep” because kids are very literal and saying that may scare and confuse them.
- Stick with routines - Get back to your family’s routines as soon as possible. This will give them a sense of safety and comfort, but will also show them that life goes on after death, even as we continue to process it.
- Not your fault - Reassure your child that the death they’ve experienced is no one’s fault, and it’s especially not their fault. Guilt is a common emotion for all grieving, even kids.
- Provide closure - Funerals can be a great way for kids to say goodbye while also seeing how loved ones care for one another. Only you know if that will be helpful for your child. If they don’t attend a funeral, try to create another goodbye ritual for them, like planting a tree.
Even if your child hasn’t yet experienced loss, it’s great to start talking about death with them early so they are ready and have the language once it does happen. Remember that grief is a lifelong journey, so your child will likely continue the conversation with you forever. Which is a gift.