The finality of death is an emotional and difficult concept to process. Whether the death of a loved one is something you are able to prepare for or it is completely unexpected, it is never easy to begin the grieving process. Children struggle to cope with their big emotions daily, let alone when that big emotion is quite literally larger than life – have patience with them during this difficult time.
Having to explain to your child that they won’t be able to see a grandparent or loved one again will be one of your toughest conversations to date. There is no easy way to start the conversation, and my condolences to you as you navigate this difficult life lesson. My hope is you find some comfort in these tips to explain the death of a loved one to your child
Consider Your Child’s Age & Maturity
When explaining death to your child, it is important to do so in an age appropriate manner. Your child might not need to know the details about a grandparent’s heart attack, but might be able to process that a grandparent’s heart was old and stopped working. Even if you think your child is old enough to hear certain details, consider their maturity and emotional capacity, as this varies with each child.
There are a variety of books on the market that are a great jumping off point for this conversation. Snuggle up with your little one, have some tissues nearby, and read a book that covers the concept of death and grieving. Books that are written for children often use age-appropriate vocabulary and descriptions when discussing what happened to a loved one, and what that means for their life now. I have provided a few good options for you:
Be Vulnerable with Your Own Emotions
Sometimes children need to see from a trusted adult that it is okay to be sad. Seeing the raw emotions may then help them feel comfortable sharing their true emotions and feelings. This is a difficult time for your family, and everyone will be grieving, let yourself cry and be sad in front of your child. You are their role model, and if you are vulnerable with your emotions, they will be vulnerable as well, making it easier to open the door for conversation. Being sad is an unfortunate part of life, so there is no reason to mask these very real emotions.
Of course, use your best judgment depending on your child’s age and maturity level. A young toddler might not benefit from seeing you cry for days, but an older child may use this as an opportunity to talk about their emotions.
Be Prepared for Questions
Inevitably your child will have follow up questions to hearing that a loved one has died. They may even ask questions as you read a book together, which is a great time to open up the conversation further. Be prepared to answer any questions, bringing in your religious beliefs if appropriate. If your child is asking questions, that means they are processing the situation, so your comfort and responses are very important to them.
Talk About Favorite Memories
The finality of death is what makes it sad for all of us. Knowing we will not see that person again, or share another birthday or holiday with them, is heart wrenching. Use these emotions to also talk about happy memories with your little one. Discuss fun memories that you have of this person, look at pictures and reminisce on happy moments too. This isn’t meant to be a ‘band-aid’ to cover up the sadness that your child is feeling, but this is a way to also remind your child that just because a loved one is physically gone, there will always be memories and pictures to keep close to your heart.
There are so many beautiful aspects to life, however, unfortunately, death is inevitable. Your child will experience the loss of a loved one at some point in their life, so it is beneficial to understand how to approach this topic in an age-appropriate way. Everyone grieves differently, take each day as it comes for both you and your little one, allowing them the safe space to grieve how they need to. Finally, my condolences to you and your family during this time, and as you navigate this conversation.