Recently, I attended a funeral for my dear friend who had a significant impact during my adolescence. As the days led up to the funeral, I looked for a babysitter but was unable to find one so I needed to take my 5-year old son. I had concerns about what behavior he would have throughout the event and what he would think or take away from it. I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. He was well behaved and respectful throughout the day. He showed sympathy by giving me a tissue when he saw my crying and empathized with my friend’s son who was visibly saddened.
A few days later, we were working on a holiday craft and my son started asking questions about the funeral. “Why did we go?” he asked and “Was she your family?” He was able to reflect on the emotions of others. He commented on my friend’s son’s emotions and said, “It’s good that it wasn’t his mom so he still has someone to care for him.” He stated, “I would be so sad if you died.” He then proceeded to ask questions about how people die.
This situation really had me reflecting about how to talk to children about death and should they attend a funeral.
How to talk to your children about death
When deciding how to talk to a child about death, consider the age and development of the child. Children process death differently than adults. They may realize that they feel sad but may not understand the permanency of death. Here are some suggestions to start the conversation.
Be honest and straightforward. Telling a child that a loved one is “in a better place” can be confusing and send a message that there is something wrong with this place. Instead, you could say, “Uncle Jack died in a car accident. That means that we won’t get to see him anymore.”
Answer questions honestly and directly. When your child asks when Fluffy the pet turtle is coming home gently remind the child that Fluffy has died and will not be coming home.
Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Children learn from the way we act and respond in daily events. Shedding tears in sadness of the loss is appropriate for your child to see and it will help them learn how to cope with emotions when they come up. With this, encourage your child to express their emotions.
Remember that children will have their own reaction to loss. Offer empathy and understanding through emotions or disruptive behaviors.
Most of us struggle in knowing how to give comfort to an adult who is experiencing a loss or death of a loved one, let alone a child. We often struggle with understanding death as adults and attempt to protect children from having to experience this same mess of emotions as we are. Many adults are uncomfortable discussing death and dying and use phrases that may be misunderstood by children. At times however, our well-intentioned messages do the complete opposite of giving comfort! Here are the top five to avoid!
1- “He/She is in a better place now”
This can be such a confusing statement to a child (or anyone struggling). What could be better than being here alive with me?? This type of a message can unintentionally cause the child to internalize a belief that “I must have done something bad” or “I must be bad” if being dead is better than being alive and spending time together. A better thing to say is, “Your Mom can’t feel any more pain or suffering now because she has died and her body isn’t able to feel these things now”.
2- “We lost your Grandpa”
A young child is going to be very confused by this. They may wonder “Did Grandpa run away?” or “What?! Grandpa is lost? Let’s go find him!”. The child may worry about their loved ones health and feel anxious if they are safe or being taken care of by someone nice. They may worry about them being alone and scared, which is exactly how a child would feel if they were lost too! A better thing to say is “Grandpa died last night” and answer what questions your child may have about his death.
3- “He/She has gone to sleep and won’t ever wake up”
Young children may become very scared to go to sleep after hearing this, after all, if this happened to Aunt Thelma, then it could happen to them also if they go to sleep! Many children struggle with sleeping in their own beds following the death of a loved one, as nighttime and being alone in their bed is a perfect combination for their worries and imagination to take hold and create very scary possibilities. It is normal for a child to experience some regression during this time, they may begin bedwetting, climbing into the parent’s bed, struggling with falling and staying asleep, as well as refusal to be alone.
4- “He/She has passed away”
This is a typical phrase we use culturally to describe the death of someone. However, most children do not know the definition of “passed away” is actual death. A better way to describe death to a child is to say, “Uncle Joe died today. This means that his heart is no longer beating, his mind isn’t thinking, his lungs no longer work and he has stopped breathing. His body can’t feel any pain or cold or discomfort”. Some adults feel uncomfortable about being this upfront or frank about death, but this is actually a really important lesson every single human needs to learn. Every single person will both live and die at some point. It is okay to talk about this openly and honestly.
5- “You should feel happy now that they are in heaven”
Who has ever felt happy when someone has died?? You may feel peace or tenderness or even relief, but most humans do not experience feelings of happiness and joy as part of their grieving process. When we say statements like this to kids (or adults) we unintentionally are shaming them for feeling otherwise. Happy may be the very last emotion they are feeling at this point in time. There are no “shoulds” in grief, especially in childhood grief. A better way to say this is, “Its okay to feel sad and mad and any other feeling you may feel right now”.
Chances are that you know a woman who has had a miscarriage. It can be difficult to know how to respond when a friend experiences such a tragedy.
LCSW Julie Hanks recently offered her professional insight on the topic to a Woman’s Day article entitled “9 Things Never to Say to a Woman Who’s Had a Miscarriage.” Here’s a quick review of what not to say in this situation: