Talking about death is one of those things that all of us are not comfortable with doing. It’s a part of our lives and yet our society wants to focus solely on life. At some point, there will be a death in your child’s life (even if it’s not until much later!) and it will be important to carefully navigate this subject. Here are some of the ways I have introduced death to my children and developed trust so that they know they can talk to me.
It Started When They Were Young
I had never intended to have a discussion about death until my eldest daughter turned three years old and picked up a dead bird. She has always been fascinated with animals and this was the first time she discovered something dead. I carefully did not freak out about her touching the animal but I did express concern for germs and got a towel for it. Because of her age, there wasn’t too much understanding. I explained that death was when your heart stopped beating. I had her hold her hand to her heart and tell me if she could feel it and she said “yes”. Then I told her that one day when she is old, her heart will stop and she will die. She seemed a bit sad by it but asked me if the bird was old. I told her it was, rather than telling her the real possibility of being hit by a car or attacked by a cat.
I Let Them Do the Asking
Over the years my kids would hear me speaking with someone about a person who had died. At about 8-10 years old, it was a subject that bothered my children. I did not force the subject on them but let them know that what they felt was okay and normal. Often this led them to start asking questions. I answered them the best I could, sometimes relating how a family member I had been closed to who had died and what that was like. Sometimes they asked strange questions like “what do you wear to a funeral” or “can they hear you talking about them?”. Other times the questions were deeper and harder. This is when you want to protect them from hurt but it’s important that we acknowledge that this is a part of life that happens and one day, they will experience it.
Religion (Or Not) is Important
If you are raising your kids in a specific religious or spiritual tradition, using those beliefs around death are wonderful tools. It adds security for a child to know what the beliefs are surrounding the afterlife and how funerals are handled. Kids like to know what is going on and this is not the time for a surprise!
I grew up in an irreligious home and the one thing that stuck out to me is that I only heard about Heaven and God when someone died. It was very confusing for me. If a religion is not prevalent in your home, tread lightly on what contradicts the household! Religion should never be brought up at life-changing moments only, it’s very bewildering to a child.
Let Them Own Their Feelings
It’s important that in the event of a death, let your child feel what they feel. One should not shush a child who is crying and expressing sadness, this is a very normal thing to happen. If they become overly distraught and start acting out, take them somewhere quiet and talk to them about what they feel inside. This is the time for you to ask questions in order to gauge how they are doing. While we expect certain behaviors from children during mourning, it should not be expected that a child refrains from talking about things that hurt. This is the time to do it and allows them healing in the process!
Death is hard. If you weren’t raised with a healthy discussion around death, it can be even harder. Unpleasant things arise and we have to teach our kids healthy coping skills. Those skills will come to fruition when they are on their own and dealing with the harshness of death.