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Talking to Children & Teens
When a family member dies, it can be difficult to know how to help children cope with the loss, particularly as you work through your own grief. By being open and honest, encouraging communication, and sharing your own feelings, you and your children cope with painful times and begin your healing journey together.
Childhood and Grief
A child's ability to understand death varies according to his or her age.
Infants and Toddlers feel a loss through the absence of a family member, interruption in their regular routine, and through the grief and stress they sense in their parents or other family members. Make sure to spend extra time holding and cuddling the child, and try to keep them on a regular schedule as much as possible.
Younger children might have trouble understanding the permanence of death or differentiating between fantasy and reality. They also might believe the death of a family member is a form of punishment for something the child did. When you talk to young children about death, make sure to use concrete language, avoid euphemisms, and reassure the child that the death is not a consequence of something he or she did.
Older children are beginning to understand the permanence of death, and might associate it with old age or personify it in terms of frightening images or a cartoonish boogeyman. They often know more about how the body works, and have more specific questions. It is important to answer their questions to the best of your ability, and provide as much specific, factual information as possible. Try to keep them to regular routines, and give them opportunities for the constructive venting of feelings and grief.
Teenagers process grief more like adults, experiencing anger and sadness as they begin to cope. Do not feel disappointed if it seems that they may want to talk more to their friends than to parents--this is normal, and can help them to share their feelings and heal. Because their grief is similar to that of an adult, a teenager may take longer to recover from a loss than a younger child. Questions may come up about mortality and vulnerability, and your role is to empathize with them, listen to their concerns, and remind them that their feelings are normal, and things will get better with time.
Tips for Talking to Children about Death
- Use concrete terms when talking about death. Do not shy away from the words "death" and "dead". While it might seem gentler to use phrases like "passed away" or "went to sleep", this can be confusing for a child and lead to difficulty understanding the finality of death.
- Encourage questions, and answer them to the best of your ability.
- Be honest when you do not know the answer. An honest, "I just do not know the answer to that one", can be more comforting than a made-up answer or an answer you do not believe.
- Your child will probably be dealing with a lot of difficult emotions, some of which he or she may not have experienced before. Give your child a safe space to express his or her emotions, and spend time talking openly about his or her feelings and thoughts.
- Remember that recovery is an ongoing process. Young children often experience periods of normalcy which interrupt their intense grief, and the alternating periods might shift over the course of hours, days, or even years.
- Listen to their fears and reassure them. Children can develop fears as the result of a family member's death. Whether it is an irrational fear linked to the cause of death, a fear of losing you or another family member, or a fear that something they did cause the death to happen, spend time comforting your children and helping to assuage their fears.
- If your family holds particular religious beliefs about what happens after you die, you can share them with your child as a source of comfort (but do not introduce it too soon, as it might be too abstract for children under age 5). An alternate approach is to let them decide for themselves , by saying something like, "No one knows for sure. Some people think you go to heaven, while others believe people come back on earth as different creatures. What do you think?"
- Do not hide your own grief. It is important for children to know that adults cry when they are very sad, too, and that their feelings of grief are normal and shared by others. Let them know that you are okay, and find comfort together by sharing your feelings and remembering the family member who is gone.
- If your child seems to be struggling especially hard with a loss, or if grief is seriously interfering with their day-to-day activities, routines, and outlook on life, do not be afraid to seek professional help or therapy when it is needed.
The following links provide more detailed information on a variety of topics related to helping children and teens cope with a loss.
When Families Grieve™
Helpful Children's Books