24 / 03 / 21

Talking to children about death

We often say that death is the last taboo, and it’s no secret that we find it difficult to talk about the subject as adults. That difficulty is only increased when there is a conversation to be had with a child. Where do we begin when helping a child come to terms with an unexpected loss, and how do we know if we have approached the conversation correctly when that unfortunate situation arises?

It’s important to remember that there is no right way to go about something so difficult, and the purpose of this resource certainly isn’t to give you a definitive instruction on what you need to do. Rather, we hope that in reading these suggestions you may find some comfort and guidance in the most difficult of times.

Talking about death itself

The first thing to remember is that honesty is paramount. Children deserve, and need to know what happened to the person that passed away. Of course your explanation should be tailored to their age and understanding, but an honest explanation of the situation is vitally important in terms of avoiding additional questions.

Should questions arise, and there is always a high chance that they will, it is recommended by experts that you ask the child what their thoughts are. Aim to have an open, honest and reassuring conversation about the subject.

talking to children

Here are some things to avoid:

  • Don’t feel as though you have to come across like you aren’t sad. On the contrary, it can be reassuring for a child to see that you are upset too, as it mirrors their emotions and confirms to them that expressing sadness is completely normal.
  • Avoid misleading language or unclear explanations. To describe death as “going away” or “not here anymore” may seem like a soft and helpful option, but it creates more questions at a time of uncertainty. Similarly, phrases such as “going to sleep” can generate long term worry and sleeping issues.
  • Don’t keep the information from the child for too long. Of course you will need time to prepare and come to terms with the information in your own right, but children may be able to sense that something isn’t right and this can lead to worry and anxiety.

Talking about funerals

The concept of a funeral needs to be explained to a child in advance to help set expectations, and give them the opportunity to ask any questions they may have about the day.

It helps to explain funerals as a celebration of the person’s life, bringing family and friends together to say goodbye to the person and remember how much they love them. It is also important to reaffirm that this is also a time to be sad, as everybody who will be at the funeral will also be sad too.

It is also very important to explain to children what they may see at the funeral, and what the purpose of certain objects are. Why is there a hearse, and where did it come from? They may already understand the concept of a coffin, where does it go? Similarly, it is wise to set some expectations surrounding what the child may see people do. How do people act at funerals? Do they laugh, do they cry?

Again, it’s all about having an open and honest conversation. Let the child ask questions, and reply by asking them what they think. You’ll be surprised by how far you can take the conversation by basing your responses on the understanding that they have.

When it comes to the funeral itself, it is suggested that you take a step back at this point. As long as they know that you are there for support, allowing children to take things in for themselves gives them an opportunity to process the event.

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