Mental Health Parenting

When loss happens, how do you tell your child?

Your child spots a dead bug on the sidewalk and runs over to take a look.

“Oh,” you say quickly. “Look, the bug is sleeping.”

Your child looks a little confused, but doesn’t question it. And you pat yourself on the back for finding a good way to explain away death, even as you wonder, “Was that really the right thing to do?”

About 1 in 5 children may need professional help to handle grief.

Death is unpleasant for most of us to think about—even if our religion assures us that it’s just the next step in life. At the same time, it’s all around us, said Dr. Alex Mabe, a pediatric psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

“They see death on television, in stories and fairy tales, and out in nature. All children think about death, and those concerns and questions are a normal part of growing up. How children react when a death happens depends to a large extent on how parents and other family members react and how they respond to a child’s questions and feelings.”

Not just sleeping

When parents explain that death is sleeping, for example, it is confusing, since people and animals wake up from sleep. The same goes with phrases like, “She’s gone to be with the Lord,” since a child might wonder, “Why doesn’t she come back?”

Even at around 18 months of age, a child can begin to understand basic biology: that when something dies, it stops working. That helps to build the foundation of understanding that death is permanent and when something dies, it no longer functions—it can’t feel pain or discomfort.

Death, after all, is a reality. Roughly 3 to 4 percent of children in the United States will lose a parent before they turn 18—and higher percentages will experience the deaths of other relatives, those they know in the community or pets. Not to say that death should be a regular part of your conversation, but talking about death early on in the context of a bug or a show on television—and opening up that conversation as children grow older—can help them be better able to cope, if and when death happens closer to home.

Here’s what to say
When death happens, keep your child’s age and maturity in mind, but always be clear and honest about death and what it is.

For example, you could explain that when someone dies, their body stops working. They can’t walk, talk or eat and can’t feel pain, cold or heat. (This is important since some children may wonder how their loved one is going to breathe inside the coffin or if their loved one is uncomfortable.) If you are religious, you can also talk about the soul and how the soul is now in heaven.

Your child will likely have questions—and may repeat questions again and again. “These are not as much for factual information as they are for reassurance that the story has not changed,” said Mabe. “Let your child know that you are not going to hide anything from him/her and that he/she is a going to be supported to get through this. “

You can gently ask questions in case your child wants to talk, but if he or she isn’t ready, back off. Children may also express grief through art, writing or physical activity or by just wanting to be alone. Misbehavior is another common way for children to adjust to the changes after death. However they handle their grief, let them know that it’s normal for them to have intense feelings. “At the same time, let your child knows that he/she is loved and that the other parent, grandparents or other relatives are there for them, even though a very sad thing has happened and adults are very upset,” said Mabe.

After death—especially after the death of a parent or other close family member—do your best to normalize the grief process. Recognize that your child will feel a wide range of emotions, including anger and guilt, and make sure your child understands that the death is not the child’s fault in any way (as in,” I did something bad to deserve this”). Make it OK for children to talk about the loved one, and know that it’s common for them to think they saw or to dream about the loved one.

Finally, know that children will never forget the person who died and may feel their grief for many years. You can help them remember the person by talking about good memories, looking at mementos, encouraging them to write a letter to the deceased or attach a message to a balloon and release it, or visiting the grave.

“Historically, the way of thinking has been that it’s best not to tell children the details of death to help spare them distress,” said Mabe. “But in fact, our studies here in the United States tell us that withholding information doesn’t work. Children figure out what’s going on and because the parent has been unwilling to talk about it, the child has no opportunity to talk about their thoughts, feelings or concerns. That’s why it’s important to give a child a reasonable understanding of what’s happening.”

Need professional help?
The Children’s Hospital of Georgia has one of the area’s largest child and adolescent psychiatry and psychology programs, with specialists who can help your child with the anxiety and depression that can accompany the loss of a loved one. For an appointment, call 706-721-9331.

About the author

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the only facility in the area dedicated exclusively to children. It staffs the largest team of pediatric specialists in the region who deliver out- and in- patient care for everything from common childhood illnesses to life-threatening conditions like heart disorders, cancer and neurological diseases.