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5 Tips for Talking to Kids about Death

April 24, 2015
talking to kids about death

It’s a scary thing – talking to kids about death. As parents, our natural tendency is to protect them from any hurt or sadness. We aren’t sure what they are capable of understanding and we don’t know how to say it and still protect their innocence, so we often say nothing. Or we sugar coat. Or we lie. But what she thinks about death will determine so much about the person she will become. If death is presented as something dangerous, he may grow up to be timid. If death is explained in a way that’s scary, she will live in fear. But if death is explained and sorted out and worked through, like anything else, it will teach them about life and themselves. It will show them how to be strong when you feel sad, how to express feelings and ask questions, and how to live, knowing that every life is precious and valuable. Easier said than done, huh? Agreed.

Talking to kids about death isn’t easy. If you’re waiting for it to be easy, you’ll be waiting long past when they need you. Like most of parenting, it’s hard. It’s painful and confusing and you kind of have to feel your way through it. But it’s possible. And it’s not as complicated as we make it. We’ve actually done it a lot at our house lately…

Several months ago, when Brynna and I ran in to my mother-in-law at the grocery store, she asked in passing if I’d gotten her text that her mom’s dog died. Although Brynna had seen the dog maybe twice, she had a breakdown so epic that I stood for 15 minutes between the flowers and the deli holding her. Not long after that, her beta fish died. I was a little caught off guard when she again started bawling like a grieving widow, but I chalked it up to Only Kid Syndrome. (O.K.S. – when you’re an only child, everyone is a sibling – the dog, the Barbie doll, the beta fish…) A few weeks later, my dad called to say that both of his horses had to be put down. They were old, and we were all expecting it. All of us except Brynna… I started to realize that Brynna doesn’t just feel the loss, she grieves for the implications. She doesn’t fully understand death, but she understands that Meme will be sad without her pet and that she will wake up and not see her fish in the bowl. She knows it will be sad to visit Papa’s house and not feed the horses like she’s done a hundred times.

But then last month, we took things to a whole new level when her best friend’s dog died. Thankfully Kaitlin’s mom knows Brynna well enough to instruct the kids not to tell her at school, so one Saturday afternoon, I told her Duke died. The previous responses were nothing. Brynna cried with a depth of emotion you can’t fake. She was devastated. She came up for air at one point and cried, “Duke was 11 and Miles is 11!” She had connected the age of her friend’s dog to the age of our own family pet. She sobbed because she wouldn’t get to see him again, that Kaitlin and her brother would be sad, and that Miles would someday die too.

talking to kids about deathYou can imagine my fear at the thought of losing an actual person. But that’s what happened. We have to say goodbye to a friend today. Ms. Evelyn, a woman from the church I grew up in, passed away Wednesday at the age of 104. My parents helped take care of her for years, so for all her life, Brynna has visited Ms. Evelyn regularly. She even hung out with Ms. Evelyn before she was born. (No comments about my swollen appearance. None.) When Brynna went to stay with her grandparents last summer, she helped Papa take things to the nursing home and arrange the drawer just how Ms. Evelyn wanted it. We never had to coax Brynna. She loved Ms. Evelyn, and even when Ms. Evelyn didn’t like anyone else, Brynna made her smile. My first thought when my mom called was not for my own sadness, but for how I would ever tell Brynna. But that’s what I had to do. That’s the first tip for talking to kids about death.

1. Talk to them. Don’t ignore what happened or assume they are too young to understand. Not talking to them about death (or sex or God or anything else that matters) will only make them go looking for answers somewhere else. And who knows what they’ll find. So talk to them. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s uncomfortable for you to say it and them to hear it. Talk to them.

2. Be honest. Don’t lie. The pet isn’t lost. The replacement puppy isn’t the same dog. Tell them the truth. I had to tell Brynna that Ms. Evelyn died. She didn’t go to live on a cloud. She died. You don’t have to sugar coat it or dress up the words. As soon as you do that, you start saying things that aren’t true. Just keep it simple and be honest.

3. Help them understand. Imagine if someone said, “Next week you’ll find a bomb in your house” and then walked away without explaining or allowing you to ask questions. You’d be terrified. You wouldn’t know what that means for daily life or your safety. That’s how kids feel when you tell them something they can’t quite grasp and then say “it’s ok” and expect them to move on. They don’t know how. Help them understand what happened on the level they are able. Answer their questions to the point that it’s appropriate. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Brynna had lots of questions about how Ms. Evelyn died. (I thought the fact that she was 104 is pretty self-explanatory but not for a 6 year old.) I answered what I could without scaring or confusing her, and I said I don’t know when she started asking specifics about the human heart. (Science was not my forte.)

4. Be intentional. If you’re going to talk to them, be honest and help them understand, you’ve got to do it in an environment that’s conducive. While you’re driving doesn’t allow you to be there for them. When you have somewhere to be puts a timeframe on how long they’re allowed to cry. Choose a time and place that they can cry or ask questions or get angry for as long and loud as they want. (And let them!) Brynna and I went to get sno cones. I knew she would be sad, so I made sure we had all the time in the world and something to make us smile when we were ready.

5. Invade their space. I’m sure there’s a psychologist somewhere disagreeing with me, but oh well. Kids need to know they’re safe. They need to know they’re loved, and you’re there. Hold her. Pat his back. Sit next to him as long as he sits. Yes, eventually they will need a minute to themselves. Depending on personality, they may not have questions or want to talk until they process on their own. That’s ok. Let them do it on their own timetable but be ready and available the moment they are. Don’t make them fit into your schedule or grieve the way you do. Enter THEIR space and walk with them.

talkking to kids about deathTalking to kids about death is not easy. But the more they understand, the easier it gets. If you talk about the death of a fish and a horse and a dog, it helps when it’s time to talk about the death of a loved one. As I held Brynna yesterday afternoon, this wasn’t the first time we’d discussed death and sadness. But it was the first time it was a person she loves. I was able to talk about what it means when people die – because that part is different than a horse. A person has a soul. A person gets to choose while alive where they’ll spend eternity. I reminded her that we know Ms. Evelyn believed in Jesus. Brynna looked up and said matter-of-factly “Then I’ll see her again.” It also wasn’t the first time we’d talked about heaven or how you get there. She knew exactly what that meant. And after a few more minutes of quiet, she asked if Jesus was healing Ms. Evelyn. She wanted to know if Jesus would make her not hurt and able to use her hands (which she hadn’t been able to do for years). I said, “He already has,” and that was that. Brynna, who sobbed for 30 minutes about her friend’s dog, asked to go sit by herself, wiped her eyes a bit more and was ready for her sno cone. Death doesn’t scare Brynna because she isn’t confused by it. And she knows that for whatever she needs, as long as it takes or as hard as it is, I’ll be right here to talk to her, be honest, help her understand and love on her.

It’s not easy. But talking to kids about death is like all the other hard things – it’s worth it, it teaches you and it makes you stronger.

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