Talking to children about death can be difficult, but leading them through the process of grief can help them grow into emotionally healthy adults.
Before I begin writing on the topic of talking to your children about death, I want to say that if your family has experienced a traumatic event or a particularly tragic loss, please seek the help of a professional grief counselor. Grief is a process for everyone, but a counselor can help you navigate the process in a healthy way and often reduce the amount of time it takes to feel like yourself again. Also, any loss, no matter how tragic, can be difficult to navigate if you do not have a good support system. If you have trouble finding someone you can talk to about your grief in an honest and candid way, I would also encourage you to find a counselor. Counseling has offered hope to many people struggling through loss.
Talking to Children About Death
Death is a strange thing. It is an inevitable part of life, and yet when it shows up in our lives, it feels surprisingly foreign. Even like a vicious enemy. The concept of death is not easily understood by young children and it is important to explain to them what it really means. Not understanding the truth about death can lead to additional trauma to a child when death is experienced in family.
Why Do People Die?
Our bodies are kind of like a machine. When the machine quits working, we die. When someone you know has died, it is important to explain what happened that made the person’s body quit working. For example, it may have been a disease or an accident. The child needs to understand this information so that the child doesn’t fear that all his loved ones are in danger. Because of my personal beliefs, I tell my children that there is part of us inside our machine of a body that does not die called our soul. Our body breathes and eats and pumps blood, but our soul is the part of us that loves and is, in essence, who we are.
Death is final and the person who dies, even if we believe their soul lives on, does not come back to us on Earth. It is important to communicate this clearly to children. If they hear you saying that your loved one “went to heaven”, they may feel abandoned and wonder why they don’t just come back and be with them. Allowing your children to attend a funeral or memorial can be helpful in not only understanding death, but in validating the feelings that come along with death.
The Best Opportunities
The best way to talk about death to children is before you have to. When we really partner with our kids in shared experiences, opportunities present themselves and this is where the best conversations happen: around the dinner table, after watching a movie together, taking a hike together, working in the yard. We need to practice the art of conversation with our kids. We need to encourage them to share their thoughts and we need to listen to them. The same is true for any tough conversation. Without this foundation of togetherness, why would our children approach us with their questions about life? They won’t. They will google it. Or ask a friend. If you want to have influence on your child’s emotional life, then cultivate a culture of healthy conversation.
How Reading Books Together Helped Us Through Loss
One of the first books we read as a family that led to a discussion on death was The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis. This book introduced the idea that the physical world passes away. People, animals, even stars and planets pass. At the time, this was a completely foreign concept to my young children. Reading about it in a book was a safe way to begin a conversation before we were in the midst of personal loss. I am so grateful for that opportunity.
Another book that more recently led my family to great conversations about death and grief was Connect the Stars, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague. Here is how I chose this book for my family: 1. Our small-town library had it on CD. 2. The cover is pretty. Yep. That is why I chose the book. I had no idea how deeply meaningful it would be.
Connect the Stars, is written by two authors and told by two characters. Each character has what they call an “unsuper” power. Audrey Alcott can always tell if someone is lying. This makes middle school difficult to say the least. When her best friend lies to her, she swears off having friends ever again. Aaron Archer has the ability to remember everything he has ever heard or read. He is a wealth of information, but can’t always draw the right conclusions or understand how people feel and why.
The two meet at a summer wilderness camp. They are teamed up with two other kids to try and win challenges and learn to survive in the desert. One of their teammates, Kate, is struggling through grief, but they don’t know it. Her team hears Kate cry at night and finally one night, they go to try and comfort her:
Kate sighed, “That’s what my parents think too. Well, what they say is that I’m ‘in a funk’ or ‘in the doldrums’ or ‘moping’ or ‘brooding.’”
… “Basically, they all mean the same thing: I’m going around sad for no good reason,” said Kate. “They also mean I’m starting to get on everyone’s nerves.”
“Well, what do you think you are?” I asked.
Kate lifted her chin. “Sad. My grandmother lived with us for a year and a half, and then she died.” Her chin started trembling, but she didn’t start crying.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Right before you came here?”
Kate shook her head. “That’s the problem. It was five months ago, and according to my parents, that’s like four and a half months too long.”
Kate explains about her family’s complicated history and strained relationships, but through it all, she loves her grandmother.
“But the worst thing is that no one ever talks about her,” said Kate. “After she’d been gone for a while, I would try to tell some of the stories she’d told me or just say how much I missed her and how it hurt to see her empty room, and my parents and my sisters just acted exasperated. They’d say I needed to get over it, but how am I supposed to get over being sad if no one lets me be sad?”
The team had hiked down through a crevice and they had looked at the layers in the rock representing geological time and Kate cries at the thought of how infinitely small a human life is.
“My grandmother isn’t even a hair-sized line. She’s too tiny to leave any kind of mark on those rocks. And no one wants to even talk about her. She’s been dead five months, and all anyone wants to do is forget her. Soon it will be like she was never here at all.”
This book was so good. There was so much insight into the mental and emotional life of kids and I think the above scene highlights so many problems that we face when we grieve. We may feel rushed to get back to our normal selves. We may be overwhelmed by a feeling of meaninglessness. Of insignificance. We feel alone. Kate’s new friends help her talk through these issues and they come away concluding that what matters is not what permanent mark her grandmother may have made or not made on the world. What matters is love. She loved Kate and Kate loved her. That is what matters. I am so thankful I was able to experience this book with my kids before we faced the loss that was coming.
The Winter Solstice
My family experienced the loss of a loved one this past December 20th. We had been studying holiday traditions from around the world and I had planned to make a Scandinavian meal on the Winter Solstice. Although we are far from pagans in our beliefs, I thought it was fitting on the darkest day of the year to light some candles and do something special to celebrate. And so a few days before Christmas and on the day we had learned of the death of someone we loved, we celebrated the hope that light was coming into the world. And we paused as a child asked about heaven and we talked about hope and about our loved one. Suddenly, my oldest says, “Can we just not talk about it?”
I reminded her of Kate in the “Connect the Stars,” and how “not talking about it” won’t make us feel any better. She started to cry. She told me she is scared that if she lets herself feel sad, she won’t be able to feel happy again. Because of her previous experience with anxiety, (which I wrote about here) I understood her fear. I reassured her that we were in this together and if she felt sad, we wouldn’t leave her there alone. We would pull each other up again.
And so we breathe. And we feel sad and cry and hug each other. We sit in the warm candlelight and share memories and laugh. This is grief and this is life: laughing, crying, sad, and happy. But through it all, we are together.
Leading Your Family Through Grief
The funny thing about emotions is that they demand to be felt. It is okay to be sad. It is okay for you to be sad and for your kids to be sad. During a season of grief, it may be helpful to make more time to spend together as a family. Your child may be worrying that they may lose other loved ones too. Spending extra time together can help ease that fear. Expect that children may have unusual reactions and that emotions may just run a little high for a while. Be patient and gentle with your kids through this time. Encourage them to ask questions and talk about their feelings and don’t criticize.
During my family’s recent loss, some of my younger kids brought up that our loved one wouldn’t be getting them presents for their birthday anymore. At first I was tempted to scold their seeming selfishness. However, I quickly realized that this was just them talking through the loss and how their lives would be different now. It’s okay. Let your child talk it through.
Older children may, like Kate, be struggling with bigger questions of meaning and significance. It may be helpful for them to plan something to do in remembrance of your loved one. It may be helpful to visit a place you liked to go together, or to plan a service activity on your loved one’s birthday. Doing something tangible to help honor the person’s memory can be very healing to our hearts.
The Greatest Thing
Grief will touch all of our lives at one time or another. I hope to grieve well (and to teach my kids to grieve well), but most of all, I hope to love well. Grief is a side effect of love. And love is the mark we leave on the world.
Resources for Grieving Families