Why it’s meaningful to talk to our children about death and grieving by Lillian Murray
When we don’t tell our kids what is happening around them they are going to imagine what it is.
Our hope is that when a child goes through that heartbreaking experience of losing a loved one, they don’t come out of it feeling as though the adults in their life knew what was going on, but didn’t tell them about it, or that they were lied to. This can lead to trouble trusting the adults in their life.
Children benefit from the opportunity to cherish the time that is available with the loved one, and benefit from activities that allow them to express their thoughts and feelings during the end of life phase of a loved one.
It is helpful to prepare a child for what they will see. I recommend families describe factual information ahead of time, and help the child identify new ways they can express their love or engage with the loved one.
Discussions about death are appropriate at all ages, and the level of detail that is appropriate can often be guided by the types of questions that a child asks.
Young children, in particular, are very organic in their processing. Think about their toys. They learn that a square won’t fit into the circle-shaped hole. They learn to piece puzzles together.
So, provide a similar context when talking about death.
Tell the child to put their hand on their heart and ask them what they feel.
Ask them to take a deep breath, and then another
Tell them that the heart and lungs are best friends. They work with other organs like our brain where we
think, and our belly that we feed.
When one of these organs stops working properly or breaks then the organs are no longer able to work
Every organ is important and we need all of them to work in order to stay alive.
Another favorite concept is looking into the cycle in nature.
Nature is an easy and accessible tool for teaching children about death. Depending on their age, they have seen flowers bloom and fade, trees grow and shed their leaves, and the remarkable change of seasons.
While using nature to discuss death doesn’t effectively address the emotional counterpart of the death of a loved one, it is a strong foundation for helping a child understand that living things die.
Life is fertile with opportunities to talk about, normalize, and explore death. When a gold fish dies, use it as a learning opportunity. The same is true for any pet. When children hear the news about death in the community or a celebrity or a public tragedy, don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend like it didn’t happen. Death and grief are a part of life. If we help children understand and process this fundamental fact it won’t burden their childhood, make them lose their innocence, or cause harm. Instead, it provides opportunity to learn, explore, discover, ask, and develop coping skills before someone they know dies.
Talking about the dead animal on the side of the road equips a child to become more aware, better informed, and better prepared.
Don’t forget to ask your child what they may already know. Children are exposed to death all the time. Disney loves to produce movies with orphans like Cinderella, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Bambi, and others. Many superheroes lost a parent, including Spiderman, Batman, and many more. The concept of dead people is not new to children. Unfortunately, adults seldom talk about it or engage it in a meaningful or productive way with kids. Ask a child what they think about death, what they know, and what they’ve heard. Please be prepared to answer honestly without clichés or abstract metaphors. Concrete and honest facts are best for children.
Here are beautiful grieving books for supporting your family.
The invisible string
A First Look At: Death: I Miss You
Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
Book by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
When Dinosaurs Die
Book by Laurie Krasny Brown
Always and Forever
Book by Alan Durant
The Heart and the Bottle
Book by Oliver Jeffers
Bridge to Terabithia
Book by Katherine Paterson
The Memory Tree
Book by Britta Teckentrup