Death is a tough thing to talk about, especially with your kids. It’s normal to want to protect them and give them a childhood full of happiness.
But in reality, sometimes we just can’t. Death happens to everyone, from much loved pets to the special people in your child’s world. Sadly, at some time in your child’s life you will need to talk to them about death, dying and loss.
But how do you explain death to a child? It’s a tough one – and many parents struggle to know what to say. So here’s some expert advice to help you talk to your child about death.
Talking about death is tough
Clinical Psychologist Kerrie Noonan tells Mum Central that it’s normal for parents to find it hard. Let’s face it, we’d much rather talk to our kids about ice cream, unicorns and ok, maybe even Fortnite! Death is not up there on the list of things we want to discuss with our children.
Most parents don’t feel comfortable talking about death with a child” Kerrie Noonan
But with 43% of people experiencing the death of someone close to them by the age of 16, it’s a really important conversation to have with your child.
Understanding death and grief is an important life skill your child needs to be resilient to life’s tough times.” Kerrie Noonan
What kids need to know about death
Parents often think that children don’t understand death or that it’s harmful to discuss death with them. But Kerrie says these are common misconceptions. It goes against children’s natural resilience, and their need to understand the world around them. Children need to know that they can come to you about anything, and trust that you will answer them honestly. According to Kerrie, if discussions about death with children are avoided, it sends the message that death should be feared instead of being a part of life.
Kerrie is also the Director of The Groundswell Project, which aims to help shift the way Australians respond to death and dying, so that we know what to do when someone is dying, caring for someone who is, or grieving. Kerrie says having conversations with our children is critical to helping them cope and care for themselves and others.
We need to give our children the skills to understand death – and to know how to seek support and care for others during times of grief.”
Kerrie’s 5 top tips for talking about death
Kerrie tells Mum Central that it’s crucial for parents and guardians to be informed and able to talk about death with their kids, just like we talk to them about sex, bullying and mental health.
Here are her top tips for talking to children about death:
1. Don’t compare death to sleeping
Kerrie says to never compare death to sleeping, and to avoid phrases such as ‘grandma has gone to sleep’. While you might say these things to try and comfort your child, it can be very confusing and scary – after all, sleeping is something people who are alive do! It can also make some children afraid of going to sleep.
2. Include your child
According to Kerrie, there is no ‘best age’ to talk about death. The best time to talk about it is when it happens. Children learn best through experience and by having time to process what is happening. This gives them warning and time to come to terms with it. Kerrie suggests including your child in hospital visits and dying rituals if someone close to them is expected to die. She also says it can help your child to have a small job to complete so that they feel helpful, rather than helpless.
3. Use plain language
Children learn and understand best when we use simple words and phrases. We often use complicated words when we ourselves are uncomfortable – but using plain language will help your child. Use words such as dead, died, their heart stopped, coffin – an example would be to say ‘his heart stopped beating and then his body stopped working and he died’. Always use simple, factual words when answering questions too – death is a big concept to understand, so keep it as straightforward as possible.
4. Use teachable moments
Kerrie urges parents to use opportunities and teachable moments when they arise, as a natural way to start talking about death. Instead of flushing the goldfish or quickly replacing pets that die, Kerrie says that children learn a great deal from the loss of pets. It also helps you build your skills in discussing death and grief.
5. Be honest and give children space
There is no need to rush children when it comes to talking about death or the grieving process. Kerrie tells Mum Central that children grieve differently to adults, with grief often coming in short intense bursts. And to go at your child’s pace – it’s ok for conversations to take place over several days, weeks or months. It’s also important to always be honest and upfront – don’t make up false information or missing facts if you don’t know, as those can be more damaging than the actual truth. The best way is to tell them you are unsure and will find out more details for them.
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