Don't Avoid It: Talking To Your Child About Death
By Willow House Program Director, Erica Morand, LPC
July 22, 2016
As I sit down to write this article I find myself laughing. This past weekend I was having dinner with my family and included at the table was my four-year-old son. As the adults spoke about their day and current events I noticed that we were spelling out the words “death” and “died”. As Program Director at Willow House, I unknowingly was trying to shield my child from a word that may cause him some sadness. Is his knowledge of the meaning of this death and dying going to cause him harm? Isn’t it better that he hears the truth from me, his mother, the person that vowed to take care of him before he even entered the world? I have been asking myself why is it so difficult for society to use this word.
As I contemplated the answer to this question I had another unexpected moment. My son has three pets, two dogs, and a fish (Nemo). This evening Nemo wasn’t swimming around as he usually does. My child, being a typical, observant, preschooler, said in a calm voice, “Mommy, Nemo died.” I turned around and of course I was concerned for our pet of a few months but I was definitely taken back by his knowledge of the concept of dying. I asked him what he means and his response was, “He is sick.” Now thankfully Nemo wasn’t floating upside down and is doing just fine, but it brings me back to realizing this is a topic that I will need to address with him.
Death is a part of our vocabulary. It is a part of life. He will have family members, people he knows, and pets in his life die, people he loves and will deeply miss, but I feel I have an obligation to prepare him, understand what will eventually be an event in his life. I do believe that not all things on the news or films that involve death are suitable for children to hear however, it shouldn’t be a subject that we avoid using all together. Death is extremely prevalent in the media. Disney movies for example, present themes in which a family member dies early on. As a society we are constantly using the words passed away, sleeping, in the sky, etc. instead of the “D word” to represent the end of someone’s physical life.
So how does one approach talking to their children about death, especially when it has already happened in the lives of so many families? As we come to know every child is different. Because of their individuality a good idea is to first think about their ability to understand what has happened and the words that you are going to use. A child does not need to know all of the details and definitely not all at once. Only tell them what you think they can handle and stick to the facts. If they have questions it is at this point that you answer them in a gentle and straightforward manner so that there is not too much room for their imaginations to take over. A point to remember is that they can handle what they know and are told. In my years of experience, I have never had a child tell me that he/she knew too much.
It is also important to come from a place of truth and honesty. As a caregiver and during such a life altering event, you will want your child to trust you, feel comforted by you, and to be in a safe space.
According to Wolfelt, “One of the most important factors in grieving is having a supportive adult presence” (1996). Building that trust, especially after a death, includes finding an age appropriate, simplified, and concrete way to tell a child what happened to their loved one and/or how their loved one died. In some circumstances, families may feel the need to want to wait for the child to bring the topic up. It is a difficult conversation to have but as the adult/caregiver you are modeling telling the truth and sharing your feelings. As a result, you are building trust which is critical in the parent/child relationship for healthy grieving.
You know your child best, but remember that they will eventually hear about their loved one from others and would much rather the information come from you.