Death is a normal part of life but it’s difficult to know how to explain it to your child. You’ve probably heard strategies in passing, but how do you know if that’s actually the right thing to do….or if those ideas are more harmful than hurtful?
Keep reading below for the five most common misconceptions about explaining death to a child, and what you should do instead.
My child is too young to go to the funeral.
In general, children of any age DO benefit from saying “goodbye.” Having your child participate in activities that the rest of the family is doing is healthy, can help with the grieving process, and support closure.
Words like “dead, died, death” are too harsh to say to my child.
You need to be very clear in your language, especially if your child is younger. Use words like “dead” and “died” when you are first breaking the news to your child. Words commonly used in the course of a child’s day like “gone” or “passed” will be confusing to your child. For your school age child you can ask her what words feel best for her.
The best way to explain death is to tell my child the deceased has “gone to sleep.”
When explaining death to your young child NEVER say the deceased is “sleeping.” This language can be terrifying to your child and she may become afraid of sleep! It is much better, and more accurate, to tell your child that the deceased’s heart has stopped. If your child needs reassurance about whether she will die, you can reassure your child by having her listen to her heart.
My child is too young to be emotional about death.
All emotions are valid and you may be surprised to see your child has a wide range of emotions, including moments of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Monitor your child to make sure she is expressing emotions in a safe and healthy way.
The stages of grief are good to read up on. However, research shows that grieving children and adults may skip some stages, or move in and out of them in no certain order. So be flexible with your expectations about how your child “should” grieve.
Death is normal, so my child will get over it.
Grief is a normal part of life, but your child needs an assessment by a mental health professional if you see any of the following behaviors:
- Not eating or sleeping
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Grades drop at school
- Acts out in an aggressive or dangerous manner
- Self-injures like cutting or burning
- Talks about suicide or wanting to join the deceased
Read here for more information about depression and when to seek help for your child.
Bottom line: Listen more than you talk. Your child needs space to vent. Explanations and reasons can come later, but for now your child just needs to feel heard.
Please comment below: Has your child ever experienced the death of a loved one? How did the two of you cope?
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.