Perhaps someone close to your family has died. You need to share the sad news with your children, but you’re not sure how to explain it in a way that they will understand. Or maybe one of your loved ones is sick, and they’ve received a terminal diagnosis. You dread the inevitable conversations that you’ll need to have with your children about their illness and eventual passing.
Yet there’s no avoiding the reality of death, and you know that no matter how much you wish you could put off these difficult talks and preserve your child’s innocence, you’ll have to talk about it soon. Here are a few simple tips for telling your child about the loss of a loved one, and answering their questions about death.
1. Use Clear Vocabulary
You might be tempted to soften the news of a loved one’s death by saying that they “passed away.” In comparison, using words like “died” can seem harsh. But children do not understand euphemisms the way that adults do. If you do not use clear terms like “died,” your child might think that the person in question is still around. They may assume that they’re coming back later.
As difficult as it can be to break this kind of news, using concrete terms is crucial. Your child may still find it hard to wrap their head around the idea that they won’t see their loved one again. However, speaking clearly can help diffuse this confusion. You can avoid giving your child false hope.
2. Tell Your Child What to Expect
When a loved one dies, you have a general idea of what to expect when it comes to mourning rituals within your culture or community. But if your child has never been to a wake or funeral before, they might only have vague ideas about these rituals from TV shows or movies.
Speak to your child about what will happen next, and be ready to answer their questions. You can also talk to them about how your routines might change going forward because of the loss. For example, if you used to take them to visit their grandma every weekend, explain that this won’t be part of your weekly routine anymore. You may want to suggest alternate activities for a while that can help take their mind off of the loss.
3. Get Comfortable with Saying “I Don’t Know”
For children and adults alike, death confronts us with difficult questions. Your child will likely have some questions about death itself that you may not be able to answer. For example, your child will probably ask, “What happens after we die?”, or where your loved one is now. Your answers may depend on your cultural background, your religious beliefs, or your personal ideas about death.
You do not have to provide definitive answers. It’s okay to say that you don’t know. You can also simply share what you believe, and explain that while no one knows for sure, this is your personal perspective. Your child may find some comfort in your ideas about death.
4. Create a Safe Environment for Vulnerability
In the coming days, weeks, and months, your child may have some complicated emotions to share. They might cry more than usual, act out, throw tantrums, or engage in other frustrating behaviors to cope with their feelings. Be patient with your child, and allow them to be vulnerable during this tough time.
Are you struggling to find a way to answer your children’s questions about death? Working with a therapist can help. Reach out to us to learn more about our grief therapy and family therapy services.