How to talk to your child about death

It’s important to ‘normalize’ death as part of the life cycle

Death is not an easy subject to talk about, but experts say it is critical that parents discuss death with their kids.

 “We are a culture in denial about aging, death and dying,” said Avantika Waleryszak hospice social worker and founder of Amber Moon Wellness in Portsmouth. “No matter our age, it is a difficult topic to discuss. However, the earlier we can normalize it, the better off we are.”

Referring to death as “a normal part of the life cycle,” Leah Farley of Clarity Counseling Associates in Londonderry said children are particularly susceptible to fearing it.

“They have less power, experience and knowledge — it is very possible they can become very afraid of it,” she said.

Waleryszak said when we normalize death and events associated with it the trauma that often accompanies death becomes more manageable.

“We can positively impact the trauma that accompanies death by recognizing that this topic is not an easy thing to confront,” she said. “To feel is to heal, however. Allowing people, including children, to feel their feelings helps to relieve the burden of these emotions.”

 In openly discussing death, which she referred to as “a normal part of life,” Farley said parents help to build resiliency within their kids.

“You don’t avoid it,” she said. “Life is full of impermanence and change — death is part of that.”

Waleryszak agrees and said it is also important to not underestimate the natural resiliency of kids.

“It is our job to prepare our children for life,” she said. “Children will come to us with questions about all sorts of things. It is natural for parents answer these questions through the filter of their own belief systems. However, we should not underestimate a child’s ability to be resilient in the face of death.”

Discuss it

In normalizing death, Farley said it is critical that parents use clear and consistent language. She suggested staying away from words such as “passed” or “heaven.”

“Use ‘death’ or ‘died,’” she said. “Parents need to be honest about what actually happens. Don’t be vague or kids may imagine something far worse.”

While death is theoretically a topic a child could broach with a parent on their own, discussions around it will most likely result from a death. In any kind of scenario, Waleryszak said parents should follow the child’s lead.

“Ask how they feel about the loss,” she said. “Approach it from their perspective…ask a lot of open-ended questions.”

According to Farley, discussing death with children takes a balanced approach, which would be based on parents’ knowledge of their child and level of understanding. She said parents need to take into account whether their child is more anxious than others so as to not overwhelm them with more information than they need.

“You don’t want to press them, but you also don’t want to act like everything is fine,” she said. “You have to be able to handle a discussion about it.”

Waleryszak agreed, “I think it is also important that parents consider doing their own self-examination regarding this topic. Parents can ask themselves, ‘What are my beliefs around death and dying? What impactful events – both negative and positive – shaped these beliefs? How do I feel about my own death or the death of a loved one?’”

Create a safe space

Farley said no matter the child’s age, the most important consideration is to ensure they feel a sense of safety and security.

“You want your child to feel secure,” she said. “Give them the information they need so they feel like they can understand it.”

Waleryszak agrees and said parents should also pay special attention if a child is seemingly “asking around” the subject.

“You have permission to start the discussion [around death] if your child is going through a loss,” she said. “Pushing it down or avoiding the topic is not healthy for anyone…Protecting your children from the subject of death is not helping them deal with it.”

Farley cited expression through art and other activities as alternative ways for a parent to encourage a child to deal with the realities of death.

“Little children especially don’t use words as much,” she said. “Offer them a wide variety of activities to help them express themselves.”

Younger vs. older kids

Toddlers between the ages of two and four do not understand the permanency of death, Farley said. This concept is something children begin to grasp at around age five, although there are limitations.

“Up until the age of eight, there is still a little bit of magical thinking in children,” she said. “They may feel their thoughts could have caused the death. They might also think they could have saved the person. This can cause feelings of guilt.

Farley noted some kids, from the age of five through around 12, may internalize the death and experience a sense of guilt, which could result in several different types of behaviors.

“Depending on how close they were to the person who died, some children may regress behaviorally with tantrums or bedwetting,” she said. “Other behaviors such as irritability or nightmares are also common.

When to seek help

While some parents believe that bringing their child to therapy after a death is a necessary first step to dealing with grief, Farley said that is not necessarily the case.

“Normal signs of grief are perfectly acceptable,” she said. “A child may get separation anxiety and not feel safe – make sure you have a discussion about that, too. You want to normalize the experience.”

If a child starts to isolate themselves, acts out through excessive tantrums or behaviors, or engages in self-harm, Farley said parents may want to consult a professional.

“There could be a delay in their reaction to the death as they enter new developmental stages,” she said. “It could take quite some time for some kids to process death.”

According to Waleryszak, therapy can create a safe space for a child to talk about his/her feelings.

“If a child continues to fixate on [death] or demonstrates abnormal psychological reactions to a death, it is time to seek the help of a professional.” she said.

Regardless as to whether therapy is sought, Waleryszak said conversations about death present parents with a unique chance to build trust with their child(ren).

“It’s an opportunity to have one of the biggest conversations about life,” she said. “In this respect, a parent can potentially influence their children in a powerful and positive way.”  

Rob Levey is a freelance writer for numerous publications including Parenting NH.