404 Talking To Children About Death | Stephen Garrett

Play, Draw, Cuddle – Some Helpful Hints for Children Grieving

When I was young, eleven years old, I think, my Grandpa Joe died.  I knew he was in the hospital and wasn’t really well yet that was all I knew until one day my folks told me Grandpa was no longer with us and we would be going to the funeral on the weekend.

My experience at the funeral home and at the funeral was really confusing to me.  I had lots of questions such as:

Why is Grandpa so white?

Why is he dressed in a suit?

Where is he going?

Why is his skin so cold?

What is he in a box for?

Why is he going in the ground?

Is he OK?

All these questions for the most part went unanswered.  Adults tried to reassure me and yet their unwillingness to answer my questions did exactly the opposite.  Just because I was a kid didn’t mean I couldn’t understand.  I sure felt a lot and I just needed someone to talk with me about what I was feeling and why I was confused; an adult to talk with me openly and truthfully in a way I could understand.

This handbook will give you hints about kids and death in short easy to read points, much the way you could talk with children about death.  You will notice I don’t mince words, I write shorter sentences and in language children would use.  I talk with the children in their world, their language so they can understand and make sense of their feelings, what they see and what they hear – to ensure all the messages are congruent.

As adults it is our responsibility to teach children, our own and others, how to deal with the loss of a loved one.  Showing them how to be open, honest and loving while experiencing a painful loss will help children learn about both the joy and the pain that results from loving family and friends deeply.  It will help them embrace fully both life and death.

It is also important to understand the different levels of development our kids grow through.  This mini handbook will deal with two categories; teenagers and younger children.  There are many wonderful books on grief and children.  This section provides a brief look at the basic and important factors to understand when being with your kids as they grieve.

General Guidelines

Trust you heart, your own intuition and feeling senses.  From this perspective encourage the truth to be told gently yet truthfully.  Children are great at sensing when adults are being over-protective and when adults are denying the truth themselves.

Do your best use appropriate words such as death, dead, and died.  Trying to soften the impact by using words like grandpa is resting will only confuse the child.  Help the child learn that not talking about it will not make it go away.

Find a creative way to let the children know that grief is a process or a journey.  Use examples that children can understand to help them see that they can get through the feelings.  Let them know it is fine to express their feelings, as it is also fine for you to express yours.

An example of a storm that starts with clouds, then gets dark, then it rains and perhaps there is thunder and lightening, then it stops, the clouds go away and the sunshine returns will help the child link what you are saying to something they already know starts and stops.

Younger children are not able to process the intensity of adult emotions through their bodies so they do it in bits and pieces.  They may be sad for a moment and then run off happily playing.  It is fine that they do this and let them know that having fun and playing does not mean they don’t miss or care about their loved one.  Kids also move around a lot more than adults so don’t take their activeness as a sign of disrespect, some times children just need to move.

As with an adult, children need someone to talk to about death.  Keep their conversations with you confidential unless of course the child’s safety is at risk or they are behaving in unusual and abnormal ways.

Watch for the quiet child who seems all right and yet isn’t expressive at all.  They may need support too even though their grief isn’t as obvious as it is with a child who is much more extroverted.

Common Myths About Children and Grief

Children don’t feel the same way adults do when grieving.  Well of course they don’t every person grieves in their own unique way given their developmental level, background, family of origin and culture.  It is normal and healthy that we each express of grief in our own ‘style’.

I must protect my child from the pain of the loss. This myth gets tied in with thoughts like they are too young; they wouldn’t understand; I might upset them if I talk about it; taking part in the funeral would upset them too much; I won’t know the right thing to say; they don’t want to talk about it anyway.  All these thoughts are not helpful.  Kids know and understand a lot more than we adults give them credit for.  Children feel deeply too and need to be taught how to express their emotions in a healthy way.  By talking about the loss, whether you say the right thing or not, you are acknowledging the child’s grief too.  Excluding them from the funeral or ceremonies will often times be even more upsetting for the children, they know when upset is present and when it is being hidden.

Don’t say death, died or dying its too harsh. Use words like gone away, went to heaven, or is resting.  All these terms adults use to soften the blow will actually confuse the kids.  Grandpa is gone will likely be followed by a question like ‘Where?”  Mother’s gone to a better place could be questioned like this; “Can we got there too?”  It is much more helpful to tell it like it is.  “Grandpa is dead.” is a much better approach.  It is real and this is what the child needs to learn to handle with you loving support and directness.  Refrain from going over board though and telling the children all the facts all at once, this can be very overwhelming for any one especially a young child.

Talking about, looking at or touching the body is not right.  Quite to the contrary, it is very normal for children to push and poke and touch.  Teach them how to do this respectfully, let them feel the body.  They will notice the person is not really there.  It will help them know that death is real and also help them say good-bye.

Some Helpful Hints

Children are going to go through lots of emotions and different phases as they grieve and mourn the loss.  They may go through a phase where they are full of sadness, hopelessness and despair.  They may really deny the death and protest it hoping if they do things will go back to normal.  The child may have challenges concentrating both at home and at school.

Ultimately the child will begin to put their life back together without the loved one she or he just lost; as they do this they are beginning to accept the death.  They will need to find their own way to have the death make sense to them in their understanding of life.

Helping your child to move through these stages or phase of their own unique journey of grief will prepare them well for the ups and downs of life and also give them confidence that they can get through losses no matter how painful they may be.

What you can do to support your child is help them tell their story of the death as it is for them.  Teach them new words and phrase to help them understand and accept the loss.  Let them know that their feelings are okay and help them express them in a healthy way.  Show them by example.

Know also that it may take many repetitions to help the child understand what has happened.  They too may need to repeat the story often to ‘get it’.  They may also say things that sound weird to you as an adult; things that they just blurt out like “It is all my fault.”  They may not really believe it and may change it moments later as they explore their feelings and emotions.

Help your children to remember the loved one they lost by cherishing keepsakes, having little ceremonies, telling stories or drawing pictures.  Help them to finish any leftover business with their loved one; Saying good-bye; Telling their loved one how much they will miss them; or, saying I love you.

Watch for areas of confusion, things your child doesn’t understand and then simply help them straighten out the misunderstanding.  Help them with their emotions.  Listen to them and support them through the expression of their feelings and emotions.  Teach them how to express and understand the more challenging emotions like guilt and anger.

Importantly, don’t wait until the family has experienced a loss to explain death and dying to your child.  At times of loss emotions are already overwhelming for everyone including the children.  So make time when family life is ‘normal’ to have conversation with them about death, loss, love and life.  By having these chats you normalize life and death; love and loss with your kids.  You will actually build you relationship with your kids by having these talks, letting them know that your family can have the difficult conversations and grow from them.  Remember you can also contact you local hospice society for support.

I was in Burlington, Ontario at the Bay Centre Funeral Homes giving a talk on Embrace Your Death in the fall of 2011.  It was a fun evening full of great information, wonderful conversations and many new acquaintances. One such new friendship was with Jane George author of Playing With the Angels, Stories of Possibilities for Grieving Children.  She approached me after my talk with a warm smile and wonderful hug.  She offered me a copy of her book as a gift for my uplifting talk about death and grief.  We chatted briefly and off she went.

I read through her book the next day and was taken with her approach to grief for kids.  It is an amazing book and really does address the children where they are – at their level mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.  It feels as if she were a child as she wrote the book.  It speaks directly to children in a way that they will understand.  The book addresses lovingly all the kinds of things adults might say to make children feel better that in fact only confuse the issue.  It talks about all the emotional things that could go on for kids.

Being written to children in this unique and loving way truly supports a healthy approach to the grief our children go through.  I encourage you to get a copy of this wonderful book; it is very helpful!  It also supports much of what I have written in this small but important section of children and grief.

Much Love

Stephen Garrett