Talking to Children About Death: The Do’s and Don’ts
Every child’s experience of death and loss is different. However, there are some best practices to follow to make conversations with children about death easier. The goal of these conversations is to be always present and to help the child feel comfortable, heard, and safe.
We encourage you to be open and honest and to practice the following tips on talking to children about death.
1. Actively Listen
The number one thing you can do when talking to a child about death is to listen to them. Listening is always helpful. Offering advice or comments may not be necessary; often a child just needs to be heard. Actively listen by using phrases like “I hear you” and “Tell me more.” This helps reinforce for the child that you are understanding them.
2. Let Silence Happen
Have you ever noticed how children can become overwhelmed when you ask them too many questions? It is essential to remain patient and let the silence linger within the conversation. By giving children time to think things through, questions will come to them. Children will also feel more comfortable and less overwhelmed by the conversation when they feel like they are in charge of it.
3. Don’t Mask Reality or Emotions
Children are better at handling the truth of a situation than we might think. That is why it is important to show and respond to your child with real emotion. Model for them by sharing your own feelings, for example “I feel sad too, especially when I hear that song.” Expressions like this can be helpful in showing children that strong emotions can co-exist with the ability to keep on living. Genuine responses usually make children want to share more.
4. Pose Open-Ended Questions
To encourage more sharing, avoid asking questions that have a yes, no, or other single-word answers. Ask open-ended questions like “Tell me one good thing that happened today” and give them time to respond. Try to avoid taking over the conversation. Instead, stay gently curious by asking things like “What is that like for you?” or “What else happened”.
5. Let the Conversation Happen “Naturally”
Sitting the child down in a formal manner can intimidate them, so you might want to try having the conversation at “any” time. Perhaps you could lightly bring it up at bedtime routine or first thing in the morning. At these times, a child is likely to be calmer than usual and, therefore, an excellent place to have a more focused conversation. Sometimes great conversations happen during the “in-betweens” of life like driving, walking, or doing an activity together so be open to these opportunities as well.
Additional Grief Support
Talking to children about death can be tricky but we hope these tips will help you feel more prepared and confident during the conversation. If you need more guidance on how to talk to children about death, reach out to Good Grief. We are here to help!
Good Grief is a leading nonprofit organization supporting communities, families, and children to grow from loss and adversity.