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How to talk to children about the death of a loved one

Death is a universal experience, it is fact of life that our children are exposed to from an early age, in many classic story tales, in nature, and in our families. When we talk with children about death, both when it is abstract and when it hits closer to home, we can explore what they understand about death, perhaps address fears and worries about death.

This weekend Tucson non-profit Many Mouths One Stomach hosts what has become a favorite Tucson event, the All Souls Procession.“The Procession is a sanctuary for community members from all walks of life to express their grief and loss in a celebration of creative energy and a rejoicing of living.”

Part of the events this weekend is the Procession of Little Angels. An opportunity for children to create and to celebrate the lives of loved ones that have died in a way that makes sense to them. When someone dies many of us struggle to explain death to our young children. Sometimes we might even try to avoid the topic.

Child life specialists at TMC for Children gave this advice about talking to children about the death of a loved one:

How to talk to children about the death of a loved one:

  1. Be Honest

    Always be honest with your children and talk to them at their developmental level (with terms they understand) as well as at their eye level.

  2. Be Careful with Your Words

    Avoid terms which seem confusing.  Such as “passed on” or “taken from us” which can give mixed messages.  Children think in concrete terms.  Often times, hugs and just sitting close by can say a lot.

  3. Remember Siblings

    When a child dies, surviving siblings will benefit from support from family and friends.

  4. Don’t be afraid to show emotion

    Don’t be afraid to show emotion and allow children to show emotion. It is important that children know they how they are feeling is normal, whether they are sad, angry, laughing, etc.

  5. Include children in an end of life memorial.

    Have them assist with picking out pictures, writing letter/drawing pictures for their loved one.

  6. Memory Making Activities

    Offer children the opportunity to engage in memory making activities. Planting a garden in memory of the deceased loved one or painting a treasure box to hold special memories of the loved one are great ideas that allow children to process their grief. This workshops associated with All Souls Procession and the Procession of Little Angels is a perfect example of memory making activities.

  7. Follow your child’s lead

    Follow your child’s lead and allow children to grieve at their own pace. Encourage open communication and let children know that you are there to listen, whenever they are ready to talk.

  8. Connect with a Child Life Specialist

    If a loved one is dying or has died in the hospital, a child life specialist may be available to provide education and grief support to children of all ages. Please ask a nurse if you are interested in a visit from a child life specialist.

Child Life Specialists book recommendations:

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst 
A comforting story about two siblings explains separation/loss to young children. This is a delightful book that works magic to comfort children dealing with divorce, death, hospitalization, adoption, incarceration, parents in the military, or simply going back to school.

Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert
In this modern-day fable, a woman who has suffered a terrible loss cooks up a special batch of tear soup, blending the unique ingredients of her life into the grief process. Along the way she dispenses a recipe of sound advice for people who are in mourning.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf  A Story Of Life For All Ages by Leo Buscaglia
As Freddie experiences the changing seasons along with his companion leaves, he learns about the delicate balance between life and death.

The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
A surprising and silly book about moods, featuring such musings as “Sometimes I feel like staying in the bathtub all day”, and “Sometimes I feel brave”, illustrated with bold, bright, childlike drawings. Perfect for parents and teachers to use as a springboard for discussion about feelings.

The National Institute of Health shares this document which explores what to consider when talking to children about death.

Local Resources:

Tu Nidito is a non-profit organization that provides free, group therapy for children experiencing grief.

A version of this post was published Nov 5, 2015 on TMC for Children