Coping With Grief Part 5: How to Talk to Children About Death
My name is Claire and I’m a Customer Experience Manager at Bare Cremation.
Two years ago, my husband was suddenly and traumatically taken from me. This ever-present fixture in my life was suddenly gone. After going through grief myself, I wanted to share my story. So I’ve put together this eight-part series about coping with loss and bereavement based on my personal experiences with grief.
As a society, we’re not great at dealing with death and grief. At Bare, we want to change this. In this fifth article in the series, I’ll offer advice on how to talk to children about death and grief.
We often underestimate the emotional capacity of children. We assume children don’t feel things as deeply as adults.
Children grieve differently
Children grieve differently from adults. They tend to step in and out of their grief. One moment a child may be sobbing over the person they’re missing but playing happily only a few minutes later. The beauty of seeing this is noticing how intuitively children process their feelings right then in the moment.
Being aware of this shows you how fluid the nature of grief is. It is an energy that will move through and around you, it’s not stagnant. Allow yourself that bounty when a grief feeling comes in a wave. Let it, like the babes do.
Kids find it hard to express their feelings
Children may also not have the words to communicate the complex feelings they’re experiencing in grief. Instead, they may complain of stomach pain, headaches and other physical discomforts. They may have nightmares or changes in behaviour.
As adults, we need to not only be attuned to how we are feeling, but also attune with the children around us. This may sound difficult and hugely overwhelming, but it only takes a few seconds to still yourself and contemplate the situation.
The biggest thing to remember is that all of you are impacted by the loss and all of you will react in different ways.
The 5 aspects of death children need to understand
There are five aspects of death that children need to understand:
1. Universality of death.
The first aspect of death is universality. That’s about understanding that death is a universal experience.
2. Irreversibility of death
The second aspect of death is the idea of irreversibility. As children start to understand the universality of death, they begin to understand that death is not reversible. Younger children will struggle more with this than older children and may still expect their loved one to come back or be existing somewhere else in the world.
3. Non-functionality of death
Children are curious about what happens when a body dies – this is called non-functionality.
Younger children may ask things like: “Does Grandma still go to the toilet?”; “Can Grandma still see?”; or “Does Grandma still go to sleep all night?.”
Older children, who are more familiar with the mechanisms of death, may be more curious about the process of decomposition. This can be quite confronting for grieving parents. It’s important to answer as honestly as you can, using concrete language.
4. Causality of death
The next aspect of death that children need to address is the concept of causality. Children are naturally quite egocentric. Children may blame themselves for the death of their loved one and feel guilt and distress.
5. Continuing bonds after a death
The idea of continuing bonds is really crucial. How can we incorporate the memory of the person we’re missing into our lives? How can we help our children to honour their memory?
I found the best way to do this is to keep talking about my late husband Garryn. I feel I have to commit to the duty of keeping him alive in my daughter’s heart too. I do this through sharing memories and referring to how much he would be proud of this, that or the other. She talks to me about the dreams she has of him. We both share individually how he feels so present here still.
It’s about navigating a different relationship with the deceased, now. And you can be as creative in this as you like, just keep speaking their names.
Use concrete language about death
The most important part of having grief conversations with your children is using concrete language. Avoid saying that the person you’re missing has “gone to a better place” or “moved on”. Instead, explain that the person has died, being clear about the human body.
Death surrounds us everywhere and if it’s easier to go into nature and help your child understand the cycles of life, do that. The important thing is to be clear about how this person’s heart no longer beats, the breath is no longer rising in their chest. Most of the time, by using concrete language in small increments – your child will lead you into the conversation.
Be honest with your child
After the loss of a parent, a child may become preoccupied that their remaining parent is going to die. It’s important to, again, be accurate and concrete. Tell your child that yes, everyone dies eventually. But that you’re healthy and safe right now and there’s no reason to think that you won’t live for another 50 years.
Ask your child questions
It can be useful to ask your child what they think has happened and what they understand about death and what they’re experiencing. A child may think they’re responsible for the death of a parent. Asking kids questions about death gives you the opportunity to clarify any errors.
Don’t rely emotionally on your children
Avoid relying emotionally on your children after a death. This can be hard to recognise, particularly if you’ve lost a partner or another close family member. This does not mean hiding your emotions from your child. Rather, it means not putting them in a position where they feel responsible for your emotions. For instance, if a child finds you crying in a room, explain that you’re sad that Daddy has died and that it’s normal to cry and be sad.
In this eight-part Coping With Grief series, I’m going to share with you what I learnt about having healthy conversations – with yourself, your friends, your kids. I share some advice for those on the other side of grief on how you can be a good friend, a good partner and a good human.
You can read my other articles in the series including 5 Biggest Grief Myths Busted and The Day My World Changed Forever. Look out for the other articles in the series coming soon. We’ve also compiled a list of useful bereavement, grief counselling and other support services across Australia here.
All information provided is general in nature. For additional information relating to advance care planning, please speak to your health professional for advice about your specific circumstances. If you or someone you know is at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, call 000. For Lifeline’s Crisis Counselling service call 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636.
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About Bare Cremation
Bare Cremation is Australia’s best direct cremation service. Our mission is to ensure every Australian has the option of an affordable, seamless and stress-free funeral service that can be arranged online or over the phone in minutes, at a fraction of the price of traditional funeral homes. We’ve cut out the need to go to a funeral home and made a complicated process simple by offering an affordable, transparent and easy alternative. Find out more by visiting the Bare Cremation website.