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Talking to Your Kids About Death

This past week was a tough one for my family. Just after we celebrated her 90th birthday, my grandmother passed away. While she was elderly, it was a bit unexpected to loose her so fast. and of course, as with any similar situation, there were lots of arrangements that had to be made in a short time. This was the first time that my girls had experienced the death of  a close relative. I'm not sure what they expected but they did have lots of questions. At 11 and 13, they were able to understand the concept of death and they were both affected in different ways and had lots of questions. My niece and nephew are younger, 3 and 6, and while they also had lots of questions, I'm not sure they fully understood what was going on.

After the initial shock, there was the question of the funeral. My family had decided on a small graveside service. Then there was the question of having the kids at the service. Both my girls wanted to be there to say good-bye and after much discussion,  it was decided that my nice and nephew would attend too.

In the course of the discussions, I did a bit of research about the different ways young kids understand death. Here's what I found out:

  • Young kids are very literal in their understanding of death so it's important to talk about death in very concrete terms, like the body wasn't working anymore and the doctors couldn't fix it.
  • Kids may need lots of reminders that death is permanent and that the person won't be coming back.
  • Avoid using euphemisms like passed away or "lost" - kids won't understand and may fear getting "lost" themselves.
  • Remember that kids have magical thinking and may need lots or reminders that the death wasn't their fault.
  • Children process grief in bite-sized chunks, not all at once. And many delay grieving until they feel it's safe to let those feelings out — a process that could take months or even years, depending on how close they were to the one who died.
  • Reassure your child that they are safe and talk about ways to stay safe.
  • The best way to answer questions to give accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened.

In the end, it was helpful, both for the kids in our family and for my parents to have all the kids at the graveside, both young and old. It was a good reminder of the circle of life and it was helpful for my girls to be able to say good-bye. And while my nice and nephew didn't fully understand everything that was going on, they were able to be their typical joyful selves and help those in mourning grieve.

Have you talked to your kids about death? What helped them understand what was going on?