How To Talk to Children About Death

Jen's daughter and grandmother

Jen’s daughter and grandmother

My grandmother is in the process of dying and my children know it.  It’s not easy for any of us to wrap our brains around the idea that someone we love dearly will soon be gone. It’s a sad and very difficult process but death is a part of life and sadly my grandmother’s life is coming to an end.

My grandmother is 100.  There is nothing tragic about her taking her final breaths. However, it doesn’t make it any less painful for us.  She is older than anyone I have ever known.  So far my grandmother has lived 100 years and seven months surrounded by family and friends who loved her dearly. She has had the pleasure of welcoming six great grandchildren into the world and spending time with them regularly. Her amazingly full life is one to be celebrated. Still, saying goodbye is never easy.

Recently, my son Evan, 7, and I went to visit her. She had been in the hospital for several weeks.  “Is Bubbie dead?” asked Evan when he saw her. Bubbie is a term of endearment for a Jewish grandmother.

Jessica, 6, does not want to visit her grandmother and seems to understand she will never see her again.  She’s scared to see her beloved Bubbie looking so frail and weak.  I respect her wishes although it saddens me that they will never be together again.

Noah, 8, is hopefully optimistic she will get better.  On a regularly basis he asks “How’s Bubbie doing?” We answer him honestly but he chooses to maintain hope. He is convinced that if she is home it means she is will be ok.

It is interesting to see how each child comprehends and copes with the concept of death.

Unfortunately this is not our first experience with the death of a loved one. Last summer my mother-in-law passed away after a very short battle with cancer.  Jessica sometimes talks to her “Grandma Madeline Angel.” Evan asks if Grandma Madeline is still dead. Noah always reminds us to bring out her picture during family holidays and celebrations.

Helping our children understand and cope is undeniably painful.  We want to shield them from the harsh and unpleasant realities of life and preserve their childhood ignorance and bliss for as long as possible.

What we tell our children about death, as well as when we say it will depend on their ages as well as our own beliefs and feelings and the specifics of the situation we find ourselves in.  Obviously the death of a close relative is different that the death of an acquaintance or even a tragedy on the news.

Each child’s understanding and reaction will be different but experts advise parents to provide children with clear and truthful explanations.  Parents should tell a child that a loved one is dying so it does not come as a shock. Of course death isn’t always foreseeable.  When the death of a loved one is unexpected and tragic, it is extremely difficult to explain something to our children that we don’t even understand. In such a situation, children are intuitive and sense when something is going on so it is best to tell them the news as soon as possible.  Professionals advise beginning with a statement such as, “I’m afraid I have something very sad to tell you.” This helps prepare the child somewhat for what you have to tell them.

Choose your words very carefully because children can be very concrete and literal in their thinking.  Avoid referring to death as “going to sleep” or a “final rest.” Such words may make them afraid to go to sleep out of fear they will not wake up. Similarly, saying a loved one died because he or she was sick may make a child afraid that a cold, cough or other illness could be fatal.  It’s best to explain that only very bad illnesses can make a person die and sometimes the doctors cannot make that person better. Even expressions like grandpa went away can be confusing for a small child.

Coping with death brings up other fears of mortality in children too.  Jessica occasionally says “Mommy, I don’t want you to die.” I would love to promise her that I won’t but I can’t.  So I tell her I plan on living a very long life. I tell her that I eat healthy, exercise, see the doctor when I am sick and do everything I can to make sure I live for a very long time.  You can also reassure children about their own mortality by making similar statements.

Following the death of a loved one, provide opportunities to remember and celebrate that person’s life.  It’s important to allow children the chance to talk about the person who has died but don’t force your child to share thoughts and memories. He or she may not want to.

Experts also say parents should not be afraid to bring their child to visit the person who is dying or attend the funeral.  Both can be important in providing closure.  However prepare the child for what they will see and how others may be reacting. If the child does not want to go, never force him or her. Instead, offer options like making a card, writing a note or bringing flowers to the grave.

I do not know how much longer my grandmother will be with us. Or how long any of our loved ones will be around for that matter. But I do know that we will keep the lines of communication open and get through these difficult times together.

 — Jen Lovy, Parenting Program Volunteer

4 Responses to “How To Talk to Children About Death”

  1. 1 Anonymous July 31, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Beautifully written, Jen. I found your tips to be valuable and your approach inspiring. I especially love the photo of your grandmother with your daughter…a memory to keep for sure. Thank you for opening your heart and sharing your personal journey on letting go and saying goodbye. 100 years and 7 months…your grandmother sounds amazing!

  2. 3 battery backup March 10, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Hello there I am so happy I found your blog, I really
    found you by mistake, while I was researching on Askjeeve for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like
    to say kudos for a incredible post and a all round interesting blog (I also
    love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read it all at the minute but I have saved
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    • 4 jen Lovy March 13, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Thank you so much for your positive comments. I appreciate your compliments and I am also glad you found the post.

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