Talking about death with your kids has been a parent's nightmare since the beginning of time. When a loved one passes away, young children may not be entirely familiar with the concept, and explaining something so complicated in simple terms is a daunting, exhausting and extremely difficult task. Check out these tips for helping your kids through the sad and stressful time in your lives.
Keep your answers short and simple. Children think in such literal terms that using a euphemism like "Grandma went away" or "went to sleep" can be confusing and a little scary for your kids. Tell your children that Grandma died, and what dying means. It's important to explain that Grandma won't be back. Using comparisons can be helpful, like the metaphor of tree leaves sprouting in the spring and changing colors and falling off in the fall. Keeping your answers short and simple is especially important with kids under the age of five, who can absorb only limited amounts of information at a time.
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Maintain an open communication. Oftentimes when we avoid the topic of death, children think that if Mom and Dad don't talk about it, they can't discuss or ask questions either. It's important to make sure that they feel as if they have permission to talk about and ask questions. They need to know that you are sincerely interested in their views about it.
It's not always easy to "hear" what your child is exactly asking, as children's questions often appear "deeper" than they really are. For example, if your three-year-old asks, "Where did Grandma go?", it is most likely that she's not referring to the afterlife, but instead wondering if Grandma will come back. To really gauge where your child stands with everything, you could answer her question with another question, like "where do you think she went?". That way, you'll know exactly what's going through her mind and you'll be able to help her more easily.
If it's a pet that has died, that can often be just as hard, if not harder, on your young one than as if a relative had died. Have a funeral for your pet and help your children make memory books with pictures and stories of the good times they had with the pet. Click here to see how your pet can improve your mental health.
Offer honest explanations. If your child asks why Grandma died, it's important to be honest with her. Tell her that she was very old and sick, that she couldn't breathe any longer, or whatever most basic answer describes the death of your loved one. It's especially important to be honest with your kids when you are visibly upset. Allowing them to see why you're upset will let them know that it's okay to feel sad, and that even adults get very sad sometimes.
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Be prepared for any and all reactions and emotions. Depending on a number of things like the age of your child, who it was that passed away, if the passing was sudden or expected, etc., your children can react in several different manners. Obviously, each child is different, so it's hard to predict how your kids will react, but many children either feel guilty or mad. For example, you may hear your child say "Grandma died and left me because I was bad" or they might mention being mad at the doctors for not being able to "save" Grandma. Your child might even blame you for their loss, but it's important to be patient with them and not to take it personally. Reassuring your children that they will be okay and still be cared for, even after the loss of a loved one, is fundamental in helping them cope. You should also let them know in clear terms that the death was not their fault and they don't have to feel guilty.
These tips are just the beginning to talking to your children about death. Check out our sources for more information: Parents, National Institutes for Health