Explaining the Situation
Learn strategies for explaining death to children.
There is nothing easy about explaining death to children, particularly the death of a family member. You may feel unsure about how to start the conversation or what exactly to say; or you may want to protect your child from the kind of pain you yourself are experiencing. But it is important for your child’s emotional health and well-being that you talk openly and honestly about the situation.
Explain what happened
- Gently explain what death is to younger children. Try to be as concrete as possible. For example, you might say, “When a person dies, his or her body stops working. The heart stops beating and the body stops moving, eating, and breathing.” Older children might have a better understanding of death, but still have a hard time grasping that it could happen to someone they know. Explain that death is a natural part of the life cycle for everyone.
- Your child may be curious about the nature of death, what happens after death, or the specific details of the death of a loved one. Answer your child’s questions simply and directly. Share basic facts when appropriate and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers.
- Children may not realize that death is permanent. They may ask questions or make statements such as, “When is Daddy coming back?” Try to use terms such as “died” and “dead.” Although such phrases as “went to sleep” and “passed away” may seem gentler, they may also be confusing.
- In the case of suicide, telling your children the truth about the suicide could help protect them when others start asking about what happened. It is essential to stress that the person who died had an illness. You might say, “Your daddy’s brain wasn’t healthy and that made him feel so confused that he did something that caused him to die.” Try to focus on the positive memories of your loved one, instead of how he or she died.
Respond to concerns and confusion
- Your child might draw inaccurate conclusions about the death of a parent. For example, she may blame herself for the death (“If I hadn’t gotten mad at Dad the day before, he would not have died”) and think she can bring that person back if she behaves. Assure your child that nothing she did caused the death, and gently explain that nothing she does can reverse it.
- Your child might assume that if he can’t see his parent’s body, he or she isn’t really dead. Have patience and be prepared to recount the facts repeatedly. Offer your child comfort: “Even though the person has died, his or her memory can live on in our hearts.”
- Your child may worry about you, thinking that if one parent can die, the other might, too. Reassure him by saying: “No one can promise that he or she won’t die, but we take care of ourselves by staying healthy and strong, and I expect us to be together for a long time.”
- “Who will take care of me?” may be a big question on your child’s mind after the death of a parent. Offer examples that demonstrate how you and other special individuals will be there for him. You may ask your child to help you make a list of other people (grandparents, aunts, family friends, etc.) who could take care of him “just in case.”
- This is a difficult time for you, as well as your child, and you will look to family, friends, and community for support. Let your child know that although no one will ever take the place of the parent who died, many people care about your family and are here to help you. Your lives can still be happy going forward.
Communicating & Connecting
Find out about ways your family can go about dealing with loss together.
Grief, the intense set of feelings associated with death, is a family experience. Grief is complex; it encompasses a wide range of emotions that can come and go in waves. Be assured that there is no set way or length of time to grieve. In helping children cope with death, remember that every child is unique and will grieve at his own pace. While the sadness may not completely go away, you and your family can find strength and comfort in one another.
Encourage the expression of feelings
- Assure your child that everyone, including you, has feelings, and that there are no feelings too big–or too little–to talk about.
- In dealing with loss, it’s okay to let your child see you cry, or even to cry together. Explain why you are crying. Tell him that you are just feeling sad, that you are all right, and that it sometimes helps to let the feelings out in this way.
- It is important to recognize that your child might feel angry at or disappointed with her parent for dying, even if the service member is seen as a hero. Allow your child to express her feelings openly. Tell her: “I know you’re upset that Dad died. Sometimes I feel like that too.”
- Children may experience a wide range of feelings–anger, sadness, hopelessness, disappointment, confusion, loneliness, guilt, worry–but they may not always have the words to identify these emotions. Help younger children find alternative ways of communicating–drawing pictures or acting out their feelings using puppets, for example. Encourage older children to explore their feelings by writing in a journal or playing music.
- Pent-up feelings of anger or frustration can lead to behavior that is destructive or harmful. Provide your child with safe and constructive outlets for these intense emotions. Encourage him to run, dance around, or pound on playdough. Listening to soothing music and taking deep breaths can also help children feel more calm and relaxed.
Be patient and observant
- If your child isn’t ready to talk right away, be patient. Let her know that you will be there to listen when she is ready.
- For many young children, grief is temporarily interrupted by a normal feelings state, only to be replaced again by grief a few hours, days, or years later. Teachers or other adults may tell you that children “should be over” their grief, but grief is an ongoing process.
- Observing your children’s behavior may help you understand their needs. Sometimes children’s reactions when coping with the death and absence of a parent can be especially severe. Some common feelings or behaviors might persist, grow in intensity, or occur more frequently, signaling a need for extra attention. For instance, children may have nightmares or scary thoughts, experience trouble sleeping, become excessively irritable, develop new fears, or exhibit regressive behavior. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, seek professional help right away.
Remember: You are still a family
- Take care of yourself so you can better take care of your children. Try to maintain healthy routines. Engage in activities that you enjoy and that help you feel calm.
- Allow your children to be children. This applies especially to older children, who may have new responsibilities but still need opportunities for fun and play.
- Offer hopeful ways of thinking about the future: “We’re going to be fine. We’re still a family, and we will heal.”
- Find additional strategies about helping children cope with death using the printable Talk, Listen, Connect, Caring Cards.
Learn about keeping memories alive and vibrant, while remaining hopeful about the future.
Feelings of grief may never completely go away, but they will be easier to endure in time. At some point you may notice that you and your family are taking “grief breaks,” moments when you forget your sadness. Give yourself and your children permission to feel happy again. Be assured that the memory of your loved one will continue to live on in your hearts as your family moves forward.
Find ways to say good-bye
- A funeral service may be the occasion for taking the first step in the grieving process, but you and your children may also benefit from a smaller memorial gathering. Plan this gathering together and invite close family and friends. Allow everyone to share memories and stories. It’s okay to share funny memories and laughter, too!
- As a family, plant a garden bed of your loved one’s favorite flower or tree in his or her honor.
Keep memories alive
- Find ways to celebrate your loved one’s life and important place in the family. For instance, you may continue to celebrate your loved one’s birthday, eat his favorite meal, or listen to his favorite song together.
- If religious traditions are part of your family’s life, incorporate them in your memory celebrations.
- To help keep memories alive, look through photos together or carry a keepsake in your pocket, such as a small seashell or stone from a place you liked to visit with your loved one.
- As a family, gather pictures, clothes, or other things that remind you of your loved one and the good times you shared together. Then take turns telling stories or writing about each item. You may want to record these stories with your video camera.
- Try downloading the Memory Chain and, as a family, create a handmade remembrance of your loved one.
Establish a “new normal”
- In building resilience in kids, you can create new routines. Remember, you can still have fun and love the person who died.
- A new family structure may emerge. You might find that you are open to living in a new place, or feel that you want to share your life with others who have gone through similar experiences.
- After a while, you may plan vacations or special occasions, giving your family something to look forward to.
Helpful links related to Grief