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Talking About Death

Kids know more than we think

Childhood can be a time of happiness, excitement, and learning for children and as parents, we want to protect them from many of the harsh realities of life. However, at some point during their childhood, many will have to deal with the loss of someone they know and love. Whether they lose a grandparent, brother, sister, other family member, or even a teacher, friend, or neighbor, death can be something extremely difficult for children. While death can be a hard topic to discuss, it is important to let your child know it is okay to talk about it with you. Talk with your child to find out what death means to him and clarify any questions. Talking with your child is one way to show that you are there to support, comfort, and love him during this sad time. While these conversations may not fix everything, they are a good place to begin the healing process.

How to talk to your child about death

Where to start. You might think that your child is too young to understand death, especially if it is not a close family member or friend who has died. However, the impact on your child of someone dying may be greater than you realize. In a situation where the death is more removed from your child’s immediate world, ask her if she has heard about it, and let her know that you are available if she wants to talk about it. Reassure her that others close to her are safe. Often, children worry that because someone died, other people close to her will die soon, as well. Let your child know the facts and be honest with her. Remember that you know your child best, and you alone can determine how much information she needs and what she can comprehend. Speak in terms that she will understand and check in with her to make sure she understands what you’ve said. Click here for ways to answer some commonly asked questions.

What to expect. Your child may show a great deal of emotion or may not show any at all; children, like adults, handle and show emotion differently. Children’s understanding of and reactions to death will vary depending on their age and stage of development. Stay tuned in to your child so that you are available for him whatever his response. Normal reactions in children of all ages include anger, sadness that occurs on and off for a long period of time following the death. Other normal behaviors include unwillingness to attend a funeral/services, expressing that the loss was their fault (especially if they ever had negative thoughts about the person), and/or having trouble accepting the loss. Click here for a chart on children’s understanding of death by age group that includes tips on how best to help them cope.

Preparing yourself. Death is an extremely difficult event for everyone affected, and mourning is important to the healing process. By expressing your own sadness, you are showing your child that it is OK to feel sad and to cry. However, do make sure you are emotionally ready when you talk to your child. As a parent, your strength, patience, and attention are very important to her.

Seeking outside help. Sometimes, especially in the case of the death of a parent, close friend, or family member, children need more help than the adults in their life can provide. No matter how your child reacts, it is important to let teachers or other caregivers know about what he is going through so they can look out for signs of grief. Things that might indicate that your child is not coping well include long-term denial of the death, an extended period of depression, the inability to sleep, loss of appetite, long-term fear of being alone, acting much younger than his age, wanting to join the dead person, withdrawing from friends and family, or an extreme and long-term drop in school performance. If your child is experiencing any of these, talk to his pediatrician as well as his teacher (if he is attending school), to get a referral for professional help.

When a pet dies. The death of a pet can be very traumatic for a child. Again, your child may show a range of emotions, from seeming unaffected to being very upset. Talking about death will help your child grieve. Avoid saying things like “God took the pet” or “the pet is asleep”, because she might fear going to sleep or think that God will take someone else. If the pet is old or sick and needs to be put to sleep, assure your child that it will die peacefully and will no longer be in pain. Some children find rituals like burying the pet helpful, while others do not want to see it anymore. Do let your child’s teacher know, because something may trigger her to become upset about the loss.

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