Valerie L. Sizelove
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Freelance writer, mom of four.

The death of a loved one is never easy, and broaching the topic with a child can be even more challenging. Children are innocent and have a limited understanding of life, while death can seem so dark and painful. How do you know if your children will understand? How do you protect their feelings?

Death and grief are parts of life that everyone will eventually experience, and explaining death to a child doesn’t have to be complicated. Talking about death with your child teaches them healthy methods of coping with loss while helping them find ways to understand where their loved one has gone.

At what age does a child understand death?

Children begin to understand the idea of death at about preschool age, or about three to five years old. Each child’s understanding of death is unique, depending on factors such as religion, prior experiences with death, exposure to the topic and background. Children’s views of death often resemble those of the adults they look up to. Children also see death portrayed in cartoons, books and other media, which affect their views, too.

How to talk to your child about death.

Every child and family mourn differently, so your conversation on the topic should be executed in a way that’s comfortable and familiar to your child. These broad guidelines might help you navigate the conversation about death with your child.

Do:

Prepare in advance.

If you know the death of a loved one is inevitable, you can begin introducing the idea of death to a child who is ready to understand. Start by introducing the concept of death and talking about how all living things die, how it’s a part of life and so on. Point out examples in everyday life. When your child seems to understand the concept, you can eventually bring up the loved one and how they are sick. Help your child mentally prepare for the loss of this person by talking about them often and teaching empathy.

Allow and encourage crying.

Some children try to act tough because they feel it’s the “grown-up” and brave way to handle their loss. Don’t make your child feel that crying over someone’s death is a negative thing. In fact, crying should be encouraged as a healthy way to deal with the feelings caused by death. Don’t hide your own crying either. Let your child see that you’re grieving, too, so they don’t feel alone in the grief process.

Talk about it and listen.

Offer plenty of opportunities for your child to talk about the loved one’s death. Answer questions, talk about memories often and listen actively to what your child says. Some children may benefit from professional therapy sessions to help them sort through the complicated emotions that come with death.

Allow the child to participate in the funeral.

If your child is old enough and expresses interest, allow them to attend funeral and memorial services for the loved one. These types of ceremonies can help offer a sense of closure to your child while making the experience more real and concrete. Children who are too young to sit still for a long time probably won’t benefit as much from a funeral service.

Encourage remembering the person.

It can hurt to talk about someone you lost, but don’t let your loved one become a taboo topic. To healthily grieve, you and your child should be able to look back on happy memories of the person you lost. Keep that person alive in yours and your child’s memories so they are associated with love, not pain. Talk about them often, keep sentimental items and remind your child of things they used to do together.

Don’t:

Hide your grief.

It’s ok for your child to see you cry over the loss of a loved one. Grief is a natural human response to death, and your child will learn about how emotions are tied to death — and how they can be unpleasant. It’s okay for your children to know you’re experiencing pain over the loss of a loved one. Focus on finding healthy ways of dealing with grief, because your child learns by watching you. For example, your crying shows your child that crying is a way people deal with death.

Avoid talking about it.

You’re going to have to tell your child about the death at some point. The sooner you dive in, the sooner you’ll feel relieved of your fear. Delaying the conversation isn’t going to help at all because your child will wonder what happened to their loved one.

Push the topic.

If your child isn’t old enough to fully grasp death, don’t push too many details on them. Keep the explanation simple and age-appropriate. If your child doesn’t seem sad, accept that children process grief differently than adults. Allow them the time to grieve and experience emotions in their own way. And respect your child if they don’t wish to talk about it. Give them time to process everything, while offering to be a listening ear when they’re ready.

Tiptoe around it.

On the other hand, don’t tiptoe around the discussion of the death of a loved one by making the idea too abstract. Use simple, straightforward terms like “died” and “death” so your child has a concrete idea to understand. Keeping it a simple, straightforward explanation of what happened will alleviate unneeded stress on your child and simplify the mourning process. The easier to understand you make it, the more your child will be able to learn to deal with their emotions.

How do I tell my kids about terminal cancer?

One question children often ask about death is “why?” How can you explain illnesses such as terminal cancer, which will result in death, to a child? Making such a complicated condition easy to understand can be daunting. Start by using age-appropriate language. For young children, it’s easier to explain terminal cancer as a “sickness” in someone’s body that won’t go away. Older kids may be better able to understand details of the illness’s timeline.

It’s best not to avoid talking to your child about their loved one’s illness. Talking about impending death and terminal illnesses will help your child become emotionally prepared for the eventual loss. When death does happen, your child won’t be caught off guard and will have had some time to mentally prepare for the idea of this person leaving.

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