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How To Talk To Your Kids About Death

woman comforting sad child

It's a sad reality of life that we have to deal with death. Dealing with the death of a close relative or friend can be heartbreaking for adults, but it can be especially confusing for children.

While parents would love to keep their children in a protective bubble where they would never have to deal with things that hurt or upset them, we can't predict when a child will be impacted by the death of someone close to them.

Although children are exposed to death often, from watching beloved characters in movies die to graphic video games and even with the loss of a pet, parents seem hesitant to have an open dialogue with their children about death.

It's important that parents speak openly and honestly with children about death because it is something that will impact their lives at various stages. Here are 5 ways to speak to your children about death that will make it less scary and confusing for your child.

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1. Be Truthful

Children have an amazing ability to detect when something is wrong, so it's best to be truthful with them right away when someone close to them has died. Psychology Today recommends telling your child the truth immediately after someone has died because it helps explain to the child why you may be feeling overly emotional.

Telling your child about a death of a loved one as soon as it happens allows them to see how you are dealing with the death and in turn will allow your child to learn how to mourn loss as well.

2. Use The Correct Terminology

It's important when a person close to you dies to use the correct terminology when explaining it to your child. “Try to avoid euphemisms like, ‘She’s in a better place,’ because they can be scary or confusing for young children,” Ashleigh Schopen, a Certified Child Life Specialist told Parents.com.  While you may feel like using the words 'died' and 'death' are a bit harsh, many experts encourage parents to use them in a caring way to explain what has happened. “You could say, ‘Grandpa died. When people die, their body stops working and they can’t eat, walk, or play anymore. You won’t be able to see them anymore,’ ” Schopen added. Using the proper terminology also helps children learn to grieve the loss of a loved one.

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3. It's OK To Cry

After telling your child about the death of a loved one, parents need to be prepared for any number of emotions from the child. There may be no reaction immediately, or the child may be extremely emotional in response. There's no "right way" for a child to grieve a loss, especially after first hearing about it, so parents need to make themselves available to their child to help answer any questions they may have.

Psychology Today recommends letting your children see you cry, and cry with them as it's not only a healthy response to death, but it also helps in healing.  Parents advisor Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore suggests crying and showing emotions helps children mourn, but she also explains that it's not uncommon for children to not feel emotion at the same level a child does. “If she sees you cry, explain what you’re feeling and why,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. “You can also suggest how to respond. For instance, you could say, ‘I’m feeling sad because I’m missing Grandma. I could use a hug!’ ”

Showing emotion around your children lets them know that it's OK for them to show emotion, whether it be crying, asking questions or simply being sad.

woman comforting small child
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4. Be Age Appropriate

It's important to be age appropriate when speaking with children about death. While every child matures at their own rate and digests information differently, The Child Development Institute gives a good breakdown about what children understand at what stage.

For instance, preschoolers will have less understanding of the finality of death while children between the ages of 5-9 are just starting to grasp the concept. From the age of 9 and up, children have a greater understanding of death. It's important to be sensitive to a child's developmental stage while still being truthful and straightforward.

Children at different ages and stages will grieve differently too, and that's OK. It's important to simply be available to answer any questions your child may have while accepting that younger children may not be as affected by death as older children.

5. Be Open About It

It's important to be open and honest with children about death, especially what they can expect after a death happens. Kids Health suggests preparing your children about what to expect at a funeral, and allowing children to take part in such things as memorial services and burials.

Psychology Today suggests giving your child a role in the funeral or memorial service, or whatever ritual your family participates, in following a death. Allow them to choose a favorite picture to display or song to be played. Doing so allows your child to be more open about their feelings. You also need to fully prepare your child for what will happen during a funeral, memorial service etc. Children need to know what to expect so they can prepare themselves.

Sadly we all have to deal with the death of a loved one at some point in time, and being open and honest with your children will not only help them grieve and heal, but will also help you to as well.

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