Talking to Kids About Death, Loss, and Tragedy
Tragedy and death can be confusing to kids and teens. Many parents want to guide their children through this tough time, but aren't sure where to start. Use these tips to help navigate the unfamiliar territory of talking to kids about loss.
Initial Reactions and How to Respond
Photo via Flickr by Runar Pedersen Holkestad
Every child reacts differently to a death or tragedy. While some cry and cling to a parent, others are quiet and reserved. Some become angry, while others act as though nothing has happened. It's important to allow children to process these events naturally and not to expect them to grieve in any particular way.
However, parents can help children to identify their feelings during this stage. Since initial reactions can vary so widely, it helps to ask kids how they're feeling while affirming that there's nothing wrong with the way they feel.
How Children Understand Death
After their initial reactions, many children spend more time thinking about death. Depending on personality, age and maturity, kids may have different responses, especially if they're dealing with a significant death for the first time. Understanding how reaction to death is a factor of a child's developmental stage, as described below, can help parents to provide better support for their kids:
Preschool age: Children this age generally do not understand the finality of death, and may even think it is reversible. Little ones may include death in their "play," whether that means making up a story about someone dying or acting out a funeral. While it may make parents uncomfortable, this is a normal way for children to come to terms with what's happened.
Ages 5-9: In this age range, children start to understand that death is final. They realize that all living things die, but they have trouble applying that knowledge to themselves and their loved ones.
Ages 9-adolescence: At this stage, most children realize that they will die one day. Some face this reality by taking more risks to try to show their "control" over their mortality. Teenagers may ponder deeper philosophical questions about life and death.
Answering Difficult Questions
One of the hardest parts about dealing with death can be answering children's questions about the matter. Many kids have never had a serious tragedy occur before, so it brings up a whole host of ideas that are new to them. Here are some of the questions you might hear from a child after a death occurs:
"Will you die, Mommy?"
"Where did Grandpa go when he died?"
"Will I ever see [our dog] Ruby again?"
Parents can be the most helpful to their children by providing honest yet gentle answers. If a child asks if a parent will die, they can answer, "I hope to live a long time, but no matter what, someone will always be there to take care of you."
Parents also don't need to explain the idea of an afterlife in detail. Providing a general overview of your beliefs and explaining that we carry the memories of our loved ones may be enough to satisfy a child's curiosity. However, acknowledging the reality and finality of death is important so not to confuse young kids. Even just letting kids know that much of death is a mystery to us is better than providing a false explanation.
Focus on the Positive
When children learn about tragedies that occur in the world, they may become sad or even scared. In these cases, it's important to discuss good things that surround and stem from tragic events. Highlight the actions of those who come to the rescue of those in need. Talk about the actions being taken to prevent future tragedies. Involve children in donating to a cause or attending a fundraiser. Showing humanity in a positive light helps to give children hope and alleviate their worries.
This approach can also help when mourning the death of a friend or family member. Encourage children to focus on the good memories they shared with a loved one. Do something in honor of that person, whether it's going to their favorite park or listening to their favorite music.
Ask for Help
If your child is struggling with the grieving process, it's important to seek help from a professional. Kids can be deeply affected by certain deaths or tragedies, and working with a school psychologist, counselor, or therapist can be an effective way for them to work through a painful time.
Confronting death can be tough for kids, but these suggestions can make it easier for parents to guide them through a difficult time. Make sure your kids have the support they need to understand and process their feelings about death and tragedy.