Talking with children about death is never an easy or enjoyable task, but it must be done to give them the support they need. This is especially true around the holidays, when children will likely be spending more time with extended family and might be having a difficult time missing certain important figures in their lives during the usual holiday traditions.
As humans, we often tend to avoid talking about upsetting topics. Children will quickly pick up on our emotions by watching our body language, facial expressions and hesitations. If they see us having a hard time talking about our emotions and our loss, this will cause them more stress.
This is why it’s so important to be open in discussing loss and grief with children and let them know it’s okay to feel however they feel. It’s also important to have an understanding of how children think of death at various stages of development:
- Preschool children: Young children see death as temporary and impersonal. They do not yet understand that death is permanent, and may not have a particularly emotional reaction to a loss. This is completely normal and appropriate for their age level.
- Children five to nine: From ages five to nine, children begin to see that death is final and all things die. However, they do not relate to the idea personally. They might start to associate certain images with death, and may have nightmares about those images.
- Age 10 through adolescence: At this point, children begin to fully grasp death as irreversible, and the idea that they will also someday die.
It is common for young children to have very different emotions about death and ways of processing their grief. The same child who is devastated by the death of a pet may seem untroubled by the death of a grandparent.
When discussing death with young children, it is important to use simple terms. “You won’t be able to see them again.” “They do not eat, feel, talk or breathe.” Be nonjudgmental in your conversations, and listen to and observe their reactions.
You may need to have multiple conversations about the subject. Children learn through repetition. Sometimes they might ask more questions, other times they might remain silent—whatever their reaction, it is important you check in regularly to revisit the subject and monitor how they are doing.
Children may have a difficult time understanding other people’s emotions. A child might ask why someone is crying. It is important to answer them directly: “Mommy is crying because she is sad Grandpa died. She misses him very much. It is okay to feel sad when someone we love dies.”
Avoid religious references, especially if the child has not had religion as a significant part of their life. They will not understand phrases such as, “Grandpa is with God and the angels,” or “Grandpa is in heaven.” If the child does have a level of familiarity with religion, it is important not to skirt around the emotional aspect of death for those who are left behind.
With the holiday season approaching, it’s important to remember kids may be feeling recent losses even more acutely. For more tips on supporting grieving children, contact the experts at Kids Kingdom Early Learning Center.