How to Talk to Children About Death and Grief
How to Talk to Children About Death and Grief
This is a subject that many of us hope we never have to broach with our children. However, the reality is that, with an ageing population, there is a chance that children may experience the loss of a close relative or family friend at an age when they are old enough to have an awareness of the world around them.
So, knowing how to talk to children about losing loved ones and processing grief may be an essential tool to have should the need arise.
In this blog, we will explore how children process the concept of dying and how you can support your child through grief.
Do children understand the concept of death?
Understanding death may be challenging for young children (2 to 5 years). At this age, children will likely be able to grasp that death is different from being alive but may struggle to understand concepts like ‘forever’.
Therefore, you should be prepared for your child not to react in a way you might expect. Instead, they may ask questions about where the person who has died has gone and when they will be coming back. It would be best if you answered these questions honestly, but try not to provide too much detail or all at once. Whilst young children are old enough to have conversations with you, they are not at a stage of development where they can understand abstract concepts.
How to tell a child that someone has died
As a parent, you may feel that not telling your child will help guard them against grief. This is an innate feeling that all parents will have. However, it is important that you tell your children when someone has died- especially if they were close to your family and had a relationship with your child. This allows your child to ask questions and begin to process their grief.
Child Bereavement UK uses the following explanation that you might find helpful when talking to your child about death:
“When someone dies, their body stops working, and this means that they don’t need anything to eat or to drink and they can’t feel anything. Because their body has stopped working, they can’t come back to life, even though we may really want them to.”
You may also find it helpful to consider the following:
- First, consider the best person to tell your child about a death- ideally, this should be someone they have a close relationship with and are comfortable with.
- Where you tell your child is equally important. Avoid loud and open spaces and instead choose somewhere quiet with few distractions.
- Use simple language. Don’t use complicated words, e.g. “I have something sad to tell you. Grandma has been poorly, and now she has died.”
- Allow time for your child to express their emotions and ask any questions they have.
- Answer your child’s questions honestly and in a child-appropriate way.
- Feel comfortable expressing your emotions- this will help your child understand that it is OK to be upset.
- Let them know if there will be any changes to their routine, e.g. school drop-offs. This will help them to feel more comfortable about any changes that may happen.
How will children react to death?
As adults, we all process grief in our own way. Some people feel that returning to their routine soon after a death helps them to process their grief. Whilst others need to take time away from their regular routine to focus on their grief. We are all different, and children are too.
Young children can’t always express their feelings through words, so they may demonstrate them through their behaviour instead. Below are some of the common responses you may see, but please know that with reassurance, opportunities to talk, and time, these behaviours should settle:
- Picking up on tension and distress and mimicking this in their behaviour
- Appearing not to react
- Asking questions and exploring what death means
- Feeling anxious or insecure
- Looking after adults or feeling responsible
- Denying what has happened or taking risks
[Source: Child Bereavement UK, 2023]
How to help children remember someone who has died
A big part of managing grief is how you remember a person after they have died. This can help adults and children process the loss of someone they were close to. You can do many things to remember someone who has died that your child can be involved in.
These may include:
- Visiting a grave: Children will often find comfort in visiting a grave or memorial, where they can take flowers or homemade gifts. This is a great way to spark a discussion about the person who has died whilst remembering some of your fondest memories.
- Memory boxes: Creating a memory box with your child is a child-appropriate way of processing grief. You can include photos, items of clothing or anything that reminds the child of the person.
- Planting a flower, tree or shrub: This is a way to involve children in marking the death of someone important to them. Allowing them to choose what is planted, the colour and the location can also support any discussions about their grief.
Books to support young children with their grief
Having some age-appropriate books and stories about grief can significantly help children.
Here are some of our recommendations:
1) Always and Forever, Debi Gilroi and Alan Durant
“When Fox dies the rest of his family are distraught. How will Mole, Otter and Hare go on without their beloved friend? But, months later, Squirrel reminds them all of how funny Fox used to be, and they realise that Fox is still there in their hearts and memories.”
2) Badger’s Parting Gifts, Susan Varley
“When Badger dies, his friends are very sad, but one by one, they recall the special things he gave them during his lifetime. By sharing these fond memories, they realise that although he is no longer with them physically, he will always be in their hearts.”
3) Goodbye Mog, Judith Kerr
“Mog is very old and tired, and slowly Mog passes away. But a little bit of her stayed awake to see what would happen next. Mog keeps watch over the upset Thomas family, who miss her terribly, and she wonders how they will ever manage without her.”
4) I Lost Something Very Special, Husna Rahman
“A little girl shares some of her fondest memories as she tries to make sense of losing something very, very special.”
We hope you find this blog a source of help and support should you ever need to talk to your child about death. However, if you have any further questions or would like more support, please visit https://www.childbereavementuk.org/.