My kindergartner lives a fairly blissful existence. The extent of her strife thus far has been finding chopped veggies in her lunchbox or being forced to take a break from play and use the bathroom. Life is simple and good, and I have relished living inside this comfortable bubble in which the horrors and pains of the real world do not yet reach.
Then last summer the first cracks in this comfortable bubble began to show. Quite quickly and unexpectedly, our beloved cat became very sick and died. One minute he was there, and the next he was not. How do you explain that to a 4-year-old?
Of course, there is a great deal of privilege here—the least of which is having my child’s first experience with death be that of a very old and wonderful cat. I recognize that there are families the world over whose children lose parents and siblings, and my heart aches for them. And while the death of a close loved one will always weigh heavier than that of a pet, the fact remains: at some point, each of us as parents will need to burst that blissful bubble and have the death talk with our children.
So, how do we do it in a way that is reassuring, age-appropriate, and the least likely to scare their socks off? Read on for expert advice.
Dr. Julie Kaplow, chief of psychology at Texas Children’s Hospital and the director of its Trauma and Grief Center, cautions parents against introducing the topic too early or without real cause. There is no reason, she says, to sit down for this conversation unless there’s an imminent death of a loved one. “The permeance of death is very hard for children under the age of 5 to understand,” Kaplow said.
When it is time to have the talk, the best path forward is to be factual and concise. Children’s therapist Sofia Mendoza, LCSW, recommends that you spare kids the details. She explains that young kids have the capacity only for bite-sized facts, so simple statements about what happens to a person’s body when they die may be most helpful.
“With very young kids, you want to open the door for conversation—not plant seeds,” Kaplow said. “It’s about allowing the child to guide the discussion.”
At some point, each of us as parents will need to burst that blissful bubble and have the death talk with our children.
And be prepared for some tough questions. Many times, says Dr. Kaplow, parents are surprised by what concerns their kids have about death. For example, children may ask “What happens if someone gets hungry while in the coffin?” or “If grandma died, can I catch death from her like a cold?” Asking your child to voice their fears can help determine where their confusion lies so you can address those issues head-on.
Coping With Big Emotions
The death of a loved one can be fraught with unwieldy emotions for anyone—especially a young child. No matter what kids are grappling with, validating their feelings is an important step in their grieving process, assuring them that to feel sad or scared is normal and OK.
When children first learn about death, they tend to generalize the concept, fearing that those around them may be in danger. Dr. Kaplow explains that this is not abnormal and that the underlying fear may be that the child will be left alone at some point. She encourages parents to remind kids that they are safe and will always have a loving adult to care for them.
She also urges parents to model healthy grieving for their children. It’s OK to cry in front of your kids when someone dies, and it can be an important lesson for little ones to see you impacted by loss while also continuing your day-to-day life.
When a loved one is faced with a terminal illness, Mendoza encourages parents to come up with a coping plan for their young families. This can be as simple as discussing the impending death and reassuring kids that you will cry together, love one another, and be extra kind to others who are hurting too.
Helping Kids Make Sense of It All
“Even for parents who are not religious, I encourage them to share that people have diverse views on what happens to us after we pass away,” explains Dr. Emily King, Ph.D, a child and adolescent psychologist. “Some children find it comforting to learn that some people believe we have a body and soul and that when our body is done living, our soul continues on forever.”
No matter what kids are grappling with, validating their feelings is an important step in their grieving process, assuring them that to feel sad or scared is normal and OK.
For non-religious and non-spiritual families who wish to steer clear of these conversations altogether, Dr. Kaplow suggests parents focus on helping kids cope and feel connected to their lost loved one instead. For parents who hold no beliefs on an afterlife, she cautions them against sharing their truth with their children. “It can be very hard for kids to grasp that they will cease to exist completely, and it doesn’t seem to be helpful,” she explains.
Instead, celebrate your lost loved one’s life and legacy. Parents can help children to memorialize a person by celebrating their birthday, planting their favorite flowers, or doing things they used to love.
Asking for Help
When it comes to losing a loved one, there is a healthy way to grieve, Dr. Kaplow assures parents. You will want to see your child actively looking for ways to stay connected to and talk about the loved one they lost. Grief becomes an issue, she says, when children appear stuck. Perhaps they are missing this person so much that they are extremely tearful and clingy and can’t be left alone.
“Within the first month or two after a loss, we always see elevations of unhealthy grief,” she says. “Obviously, a lot of this depends on the closeness of the relationship, but we usually see some decreases in the intensity of grief by six months.”
When it comes to losing a loved one, there is a healthy way to grieve … You will want to see your child actively looking for ways to stay connected to and talk about the loved one they lost. Grief becomes an issue, she says, when children appear stuck.
If your child is so consumed by the loss that it is impacting their daily life—or if they experience developmental regressions like issues with sleep or bathroom use—Dr. Kaplow says it’s time to have an assessment done by a therapist who understands grief in your child’s age group.
Tough, But Necessary
Just the thought of broaching the subject of death and dying with little ones can be enough to spark a cold sweat for most parents.
But as Mendoza reminds us, “Being honest with children about the fact that there might be many confusing feelings including sadness, anger, and fear, will make it OK for them to know they can come to you for help. When we shy away from talking about hard things, such as death, we take away opportunities for planning ahead, addressing fears, and creating an emotionally safe environment.”