Children know things. They can sense when there is upheaval, sadness, longing, and fear. It is important to respond to your child in the most straightforward, age-appropriate way when a loved one has died. You may be inclined to use metaphors or euphemisms when talking to a child about death, but that may just serve to confuse them. Phrases such as “passed away”, “gone now”, “went to heaven”, “went to sleep” or “lost” don’t adequately describe the permanence and the sadness that the situation warrants. These words may help you, but they may not be the best explanation for a child. Here are some suggestions when you are talking to a child about death:
- Explain the circumstances like you are telling a story. “Dad fell and hit his head. He has been in the hospital for many days and the doctors have tried their best to make him better. But the injury was too big and he died.”
- Explain death by using words about death. “Mom isn’t breathing anymore. She doesn’t have any pain; she isn’t scared, and her body isn’t working anymore.” Try avoiding describing death in association with sleeping.
- Children tend to internalize information in small sound bites. Try to couch the news with a message about the person who has died. “Uncle Fred loved you very much. He loved playing with you and taking you to watch baseball.”
- Reassure the child that all emotions are ok. Tell them that it’s ok to laugh, cry, joke, and talk about all the parts of the loved one’s life. There may be times that your child seems unaffected by the loss but it’s there and your child will let you know when they are ready to face it.
- Whether a child comes to the funeral depends on the age and maturity of the child, the relationship with the deceased, and the context of the death. Some families will bring a child to a service but not to the cemetery. You know your child best and you may need to be flexible with your child changing their mind even at the last minute.
- Describe the funeral in detail. Tell your child who is going to be there, how the room will be set up, who will speak, what the casket looks like, and what the service will be like. Tell them that there will be tears as well as laughter. They may need to get there a little early so they can get comfortable with the funeral chapel. If you are the primary mourner, let your child know who will also be there to take care of them during the funeral.
- It’s ok to not know the answers. Your child may ask you complicated medical questions or deep theological questions. Reassure them that you also have questions and together you can come up with different answers.
- Remember to give your child hope. You are there for them and so are the members of the family and community. Reassure them that there are still wonderful parts of being alive. Have them make a list of things they love to do. Create a memory book with them so they can carry the loved one around into life. Reaffirm that love will make them feel better.
Sarah Messinger, Rabbi, MFT