Telling the kids a loved one has died.


Over the past 20 plus years I have heard so many 'tactics' or strategies parents used to tell their children that a loved one has died; all of which are fully justified in their minds. On one end of the spectrum there is the "tell it as it is : Grandpa died" approach, while on the other end there is the "avoid the truth at all costs : Grandpa has gone away" approach.

Decades ago, in the developed world, people were born and died at home, death was a natural part of everyday life and children took part in that event with everybody else. Today however, we do everything in our power to shield our children from not only seeing death but even discussing it. What we fail to understand however, is that avoiding this reality does not make it easier on our children, it in fact hinders their emotional development and their grief journey.

We understand that in times of grief it may be extremely difficult for parents to speak to their children about the passing of a loved one (primarily because they themselves are overwhelmed with grief and emotion), thus where possible, we suggest that it is beneficial for the whole family to discuss the loved one’s health etc prior to their passing. This allows your child to journey this process with you and doesn’t leave them isolated and confused when the time eventually comes. Children are extremely resilient.

"They do not need your secrecy; they need your protection, competent guidance, patience, kindness and satisfactory answers to their questions." [1]

The Child Development Institute offers the following considerations which we believe could help you when approaching discussions of death with your children:

Developmental Stages of Understanding – A General Guide [2]

  • Preschool children mostly see death as temporary, reversible and impersonal. In stories they read or watch characters will often suddenly rise up alive again after being totally destroyed. It’s not surprising they don’t understand, yet it is appropriate for their age level to think this way.
  • Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to see that all living things eventually die and that death is final. They tend to not relate it to themselves and consider the idea that they can escape it. They may associate images with death, such as a skeleton. Some children have nightmares about them.
  • From nine through to adolescence, children to begin to understand fully that death is irreversible and that they too will die some day.

I appreciate that there are many times that we do not have any warning of a death and therefore preparing for it is unlikely. However, there are times when we do know a loved is sick and that their death is approaching. How do we speak to our children about this? I appreciated the summary below from the Canadian Virtual Hospice Centre who write: [3]

Telling children in advance about the potential death of a family member or friend is beneficial because it:

  • fosters an environment of open and honest communication;
  • enables children to get factual information from caregivers;
  • leaves less opportunity for children to imagine different or inaccurate explanations;
  • helps children make sense of the physical changes they see happening toa person who is unwell;
  • creates an opportunity for the ill person to play a role in preparing children for the possibility of his or her death;
  • allows time to put additional support systems in place, such as school counsellors and grief programs, where available;
  • enables children to grieve with the adults in their lives, instead of alone and from the sidelines. Caregivers can help children understand that their emotions and those of others around them are healthy and natural;
  • gives children the chance, when the death of a loved one is imminent, to say goodbye in a way that feels appropriate for them or to just be with the person with a shared knowing that their time together (at least physically) is limited;
  • enhances the trust between children and their primary caregivers.

How and when any of us will die is a mystery, but helping our kids to be able to cope better can be planned. Here are my 7 thoughts, I trust them will help you support and love your children though times of loss.

  1. Tell the truth, always
  2. Be age appropriate
  3. Be available for many (many) discussions
  4. Work through your own responses and biases
  5. Always be patient and kind
  6. Reassure them over and over again
  7. Create happy memories amongst the pain


By Steve Morrison


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