Family, Kids & Relationships

The Most Difficult Subject of All: What to Say to Your Child When Someone You Know Dies

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Grief is a tough topic, even for adults. Discussions about grief, loss, and death can be especially hard to get into with a child — but they’re an inevitable part of life. While parents grapple with the loss of a loved one, family friend, or even a beloved family pet, we’re also tasked with ushering our children through this extremely difficult shared experience. It’s made all the more complicated by the fact that kids often lack the perspective, life experience, and emotional capacity to truly understand what’s happened. Here are some tips for helping kids deal with loss, should you ever need them.

First of all, be real.

There can be a strong impulse to dodge the issue by telling your child that someone’s going away on a long trip and not coming back, or to use abstract terms like “passed away” or “crossed over.” Try to avoid that, since these vague messages will confuse them.

For example, consider how we normally explain the death of a pet as “putting them to sleep.” Not only does this make the permanence of death unclear, but could also scare a young child who assumes that if Rover went to sleep and died, then they might die when they fall asleep at night, too.

As hard as it is, it helps to make things clear by using the word “died,” and to explain that when someone dies their body stops working. Try to be as concrete and honest as possible. According to the research, using realistic language helps people of all ages go through the grieving process.

Validate their feelings.

Be patient and validate your child’s feelings, no matter what they are. Kids might be angry, silent, or their regular goofy selves — and they might take a longer or shorter time than you to process everything. Grief is about more than crying, too, and laughing together about a shared memory of the lost loved one is not only okay, it can be incredibly healing.

It’s more than okay to cry and show your emotions, too — in fact, seeing their parents grieve and hearing them explain the feelings behind the tears or anger will help children understand and participate in the grieving process themselves. As time goes on, continue to be open about your feelings, thoughts, memories, and how things will be different without the person you’ve lost.

Prepare them for what to expect.

If they go to a funeral (and children shouldn’t be forced to do this), prepare your child for what’ll happen there. Share details about what a casket or urn looks like and what will happen to it, whether or not the casket will be open and what that might look like, and what people are likely to do and say. It should be their choice whether or not to attend, based on the capacity they feel they have to handle what you’ve described, so be honest.

Whether they attend the services or not, let your child play a role — whether it’s making something for the memorial service, choosing favorite photos to display at the viewing, or planning a way to make the next family gathering special. It’s good for processing and healing.

But make sure to do fun activities together too, and talk about things you have to look forward to. Remind them of all the people still in their lives who love and care for them, so they’re reassured that the loss of a loved one doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of people in their lives who will still take care of them. Help them remain hopeful by thinking about, and even listing, all the events and activities they have coming up to look forward to.

Be patient.

Recognize that you might have to revisit the subject multiple times. It takes a while for children to absorb the concept of death, so even after you’ve explained everything and they seem to understand, they might still ask you, “When is Grandpa coming for a visit again?” a few days later.

It can be a lot to deal with — especially if you’re grieving too. But the most important thing to remember is to be open and honest with your kids, so you can get through it together.


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.