A friend once told me, “If you want to teach your kids about death, just watch a Disney movie.” She was right. My daughter was four years old the first time she asked about dying. We’d just watched The Lion King, and despite having seen Frozen and Cinderella, she didn’t quite grasp the concept of death until she witnessed the elephant graveyard paired with Mufasa’s demise. Soon after, she also started associating death with our aging dog and began asking a lot of questions about what happens after we die.
My husband and I weren’t prepared for these hard conversations with our child yet, and she’d perseverate on it so much, it alarmed us enough to call her pediatrician. Like so many worries in parenting, her questions were well within the scope of “normal, especially for her age.” According to The New York Times, around age four kids can understand these four concepts surrounding death: nonfunctionality (your body doesn’t work anymore), universality (all living things die), irreversibility (once you die, you cannot come back), and inevitability (you cannot avoid death). I hoped my kids would get a real-world introduction to these concepts in the same way I had: a pet goldfish flushed down the toilet. But life doesn’t always go according to plan.
A Monday phone call at work thrust me into this sad reality as I listened in disbelief: my father had suffered a heart attack. It was sudden, it was unexpected, and it took his life. Shock and sadness settled deep within me as I realized I had only a few hours before our two daughters were due to be picked up at daycare.
“What would I say to them?” I wondered. “They are so young, should we tell them at all?” So many questions ran through my mind while trying to process my own profound loss, compounded by the heartbreak of their loss too. Since it’s our instinct to want to protect our children, it’s difficult to know the right thing to do or say. Thanks to Google, my husband found a helpful article on Psychology Today that recommended parents tell children the truth and use the actual word “died.”
So that’s what we did. When my girls got home, I took my 6-year-old and 3-year-old by the hand, sat them on the couch, and said I had something very sad to tell them. Their papa had died. My 6-year-old crumbled. We hugged and cried together. My 3-year-old didn’t seem to understand.
I took my 6-year-old and 3-year-old by the hand, sat them on the couch, and said I had something very sad to tell them.
Then came more questions. “How did he die?” (His heart stopped beating.) “Couldn’t a hospital help him?” (Brave people nearby and doctors tried to help him, but they couldn’t.) I watched my 6-year-old’s innocence float away with the new knowledge that bad things can happen to people we love. No matter how much we pray and how much we plan for, life is unexpected.
We are still in the first months of grieving and by no means have it figured out. But through articles, experience, and seeking professional expertise, here are a few answers to common questions to help guide parents and children through the tough process of grief and loss.
How Do I Tell My Child Someone Is Dying or Has Died?
The age of the child and the circumstances surrounding the death of the loved one greatly impact the best way to communicate with them. Children under 3 do not understand the permanence of death and likely will not grasp what you are telling them (I saw this in my own 3-year-old’s reaction.) For children older than 3, the overwhelming advice in articles and from professionals is to be honest, give them the facts, and use the words “dying” or “dead.”
It can be so tempting to use softer words like “Grandpa is gone,” “passed away,” or “is sleeping.” In their minds, when people are gone they come back. When people are sleeping, they wake up. Because children take much of what we say literally, using softer language or metaphors can be confusing, or worse, can cause anxiety in children. For example, in an attempt to be comforting, an adult might say, “Grandpa is always watching over you.” This could unintentionally associate their grandfather with ghosts or other ideas that seem scary.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Rachel Olinger of Lowry & Associates in Oak Park, IL, recommends giving children the basics, “After explaining what happened and what to expect in the simplest terms, acknowledge their feelings and let them know you’re there for questions.”
Kids will express curiosity when they are ready. The most important thing a parent can do is let the child lead the conversation.
“Kids will express curiosity when they are ready,” she says, “the most important thing a parent can do is let the child lead the conversation.” She also adds, “Reassure them they are safe — that your family is safe.”
Again, the age of the children and the significance of the loss will greatly affect how a child reacts to the news. It’s important to remember that just like adults, no child’s reaction to grief will be the same.
Should I Take My Child to the Funeral or Memorial Service?
We wrestled with this decision as well and decided to only take our 6-year-old while leaving our younger daughter with a babysitter. I still questioned whether we were doing the right thing even as we pulled into the parking lot for the service.
Olinger often provides this advice to her clients: if developmentally, a child cannot understand death, the services might not be the best place for them. While a highly intelligent child may be able to rationally understand the death, they may not be emotionally ready for the implications. However, if the loss is significant — like that of a parent or sibling — circumstances might be different.
Additionally, Olinger (and our daughter’s kindergarten teacher) stressed the importance of keeping children in routine. “As adults, society expects that we will take time off to plan services and grieve,” Olinger said. “But for children, keeping them in their routine as much as possible helps them feel secure.”
We were ultimately happy with our decision to bring our 6-year-old to my father’s funeral. Especially now that I have a memory of her voice asking in wonder, “Are all these people here for Papa?”
Mister Rogers, who I routinely reference for parenting guidance, asserted that children can comprehend and wrestle with difficult topics, if only we let them. I’m glad we offered her the chance.
Should I Put on a Strong Face?
Let’s face it, kids are used to crying. Crying is probably the most common way they express strong emotions. Letting children see you cry gives them permission to do so too. Grief can’t be avoided, so even if you try to delay your own processing for the sake of your children, it will bubble up sometime. Perhaps by being vulnerable and showing your kids it’s OK to express emotion, you’re helping to set them up for their own healthy expression of feelings in the future.
That said, sometimes the weight of grief is too heavy. Initially, I found myself closing other people out. This is also a natural reaction, yet at a time like this, our children need us more than ever. And I found I needed them too. Hugs are healing and hearing them talk about their own memories helped me talk more about mine.
Will They Remember My Loved One?
This weighs heavily on me as my dad’s death moves into the history of our family story. It is comforting to know memories and love live on, but I can’t help but mourn future memories now left unmade. One of my biggest fears is that my youngest daughter won’t remember my dad at all, even though they had such a special relationship.
Continuing to share stories with your kids and encouraging other friends and family to talk about your loved one can help keep their memory alive. For young children, customized photobooks (or custom board books for babies) can help reinforce the important role that person played in their life. My husband had a customized photo puzzle made for each grandchild because my dad loved to get on the floor and put puzzles together with them. If your children are older, you can involve them in making a special keepsake.
I think what has also been unexpected for me is how my girls will share random memories or thoughts out of the blue. Just the other day my 6-year-old asked if we could put Papa’s photo up for Dia de Los Muertos this year. She’d watched the movie Coco — Disney at it again.
When Should I Seek Additional Help for My Grieving Child?
No child grieves in the same way and there is no set timeline for grief; however, Olinger suggests seeking professional help if your child had a significant loss and/or exhibits new behaviors like:
- Nightmares and trouble sleeping
- Appetite changes
- Behavior problems
- Developing a fixation on death and dying that continues in the months following the event
You can also ask other adults in the child’s life — teachers, coaches, caregivers — if they are noticing any new atypical behavior.
“Like adults, unexpected triggers can arise for children that remind them of their person who died,” states Ele’s Place, a healing center for children and teens. “Younger children may even struggle to define how or why they are feeling what they are experiencing.”
Many resources exist to help children (and parents) navigate one of life’s most difficult paths. No one needs to feel they are walking it alone.