As parents, our job is to teach our kids what life is all about — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most days we teach them the little things – how to brush their teeth effectively; how to tie their shoes; or how to be polite when visiting a friend’s house. However, sometimes deeper things arise that warrant a different kind of lesson. One of those lessons is about death.
Even as adults, we don’t necessarily have all the tools to deal with death when it happens. You can’t prepare yourself for grief; it happens, and you cope with it the best way you possibly can. So if we don’t know how to fully handle the death of a loved one – be it a family pet, grandparent or friend – how can we teach our children what death means and how to process their feelings?
In this article you will find helpful guidance on speaking to your children about death when it happens.
Explaining What Death Really Means
Some children ask the question directly: what is dying? What is death? Perhaps they heard death discussed on the radio in the car, or at school – or perhaps you said the word and they didn’t know what it meant, so naturally, they just ask. Others, however, might never think about it at all until somebody they know passes away. As a parent, you might be anxious about how to frame death for your little one. You want them to understand what death is and what it means, but you might not want to drop the cold, hard truth of it on somebody so young.
So how can you explain what death actually is? Here are a few common ways that parents frame the concept of death for young children.
- Use a religious connotation.
If your family is religious, you could use this as a pillar to help your child understand death, and be comforted by the idea of an afterlife. For example, if explaining the death of a beloved pet, you could say, ‘Rover isn’t here with us any more, but he is in heaven with God, watching over us and protecting us.’ If you are not a religious person, you could borrow some ideas from religious teachings about death. For example, ‘Rover isn’t here with us any more. Some people say that those who have died stay alive in their souls, and live in heaven happily forever. Do you like that idea?’ The concept of afterlife helps children feel comforted about the absence of a loved one.
- Use movies or stories.
Your child likely has a favourite Disney movie or book that helps teach them life lessons. If none of your child’s favourite movies or books discuss death, you could show them a children’s movie that tackles the idea of death in a helpful, sensitive way. This will help your child identify with their favourite characters who are experiencing sadness or confusion about death. Moana, for example, deals with the death of Moana’s grandmother, who is reincarnated into a beautiful ray that protects Moana on her adventures. Similarly, the movie Coco stresses the importance of remembering your loved ones after they are gone. These films are enjoyable for children to watch and can help them wrap their minds around what death means.
Once your child has a way of understanding what death actually is that they can wrap their head around, they might feel very emotional, frustrated and sad. It will seem totally unfair to them that somebody they love has been taken away from them, seemingly for no good reason. As their parent, it is crucial that you allow them the space to feel emotional in whatever form that takes. Here are some key pieces of advice for helping your child self-soothe while riding the storm of grief.
- Encourage them to express their emotions and do the same yourself. This can be as easy as saying, ‘It is normal to feel sad and miss Grandpa very much. I really miss him too. We might all feel sad for a while, and that is okay.’ This will show your child that there isn’t anything to be ashamed of when they feel upset at seemingly strange times, like in the middle of dinner or at school.
- Teach them calming techniques. It is wonderful that you can be there for your child when they are upset, but it is also vital that you teach them to calm themselves down when they feel overwhelmingly upset. This could be, for example, teaching them to calm down by thinking of lovely things about the person they miss. Alternatively, if your child is particularly passionate about an activity such as drawing, playing with their toys or singing, you could show them how to do these things as a way of combatting a sad mood. This could be done by saying, ‘If you feel sad today, why don’t you sing a few of your favourite songs?’ or, ‘Why don’t you draw yourself and Grandpa having a nice day in the park?’
- Involve your children in the rituals that come when somebody dies. This could be explaining what a funeral is, and giving them a part in helping plan the perfect goodbye for your loved one. Encouraging your child to be an active part of creating a sendoff for the person will make them feel like they can put their sad feelings somewhere – they have an outlet. Plus, it gives them the chance to process the finality of death without sitting around and dwelling on it too much.
- Encourage them to speak to others about the person. Encouraging children to share their memories of a special person who has passed on will allow them to express joyful things about them in a healthy way. Telling stories about the person who has died to their friends, teachers at school or even to their stuffed animals can help them find happy moments in the grief they are feeling. Additionally, it gets them used to speaking about somebody in the past tense. For example, ‘Grandpa used to take me for ice cream on Sundays. He loved chocolate; I love strawberry.’
Acts of Remembrance
After the funeral is over and your child is well aware of the meaning of death, it is important for the loved one to remain in the vocabulary of your child’s life. If you stop speaking about them or actively remembering them, not only will your child lose touch of those memories, but they might feel uncomfortable bringing the person up in conversation. Children are very sensitive to your emotions, and if the subject of the person who has died upsets you, even only on the inside, they will know. It is crucial that it remains okay to speak about the person as a family.
So how can you achieve this? One of the simplest and most loving ways is to regularly perform acts of remembrance. This could be visiting the grave site, or the site where the ashes were scattered; you can take presents, flowers, sing songs and generally say ‘Hello!’ to the person.
One way that some parents perform this remembrance is by giving their children a special object that represents the person who has died. Children often attach their emotions to certain objects, just like having a blanket that they have to sleep with, or a doll who goes with them everywhere. Helping them to remember a loved one who has died through objects can help them direct their grief and allows them to keep a piece of that person in their heart.
This object could be:
- An object that belonged to the person. This could be a necklace, a stopwatch, a tie or watch – as long as it represents them, then your child will treasure it. If your child has something that belongs just to them that reminds them of the person who has passed on, they will be able to connect with that person whenever they want to. Remembering in this way helps children to stay connected in their own, private way.
- Something special made for all the family.
Many families decide to have special memorabilia made after a person passes, such as urn jewelry for cremation ashes, that encapsulate a piece of the loved one in them. These can be kept for life, and are a great way to keep the person close.
- Something given to them by the person that has passed on.
This could be a teddy bear or a special piece of clothing that you can keep, even once the child has grown out of it and moved onto something new.
Death is always difficult to process at any stage in your life. Teaching your kids what death means is down to you; although it can be hard, they have the right to know what death is and how it might affect them. Use this guide to help your kids process grief and keep the memories of that special person alive.Category: Life Changes