“What shall I say?” asked Howard, obviously uncomfortable about telling his 7- and 9-year-old that their grandfather had just died.
They had only seen him the other day, as usual, and he had seemed his usual cheerful self. But this morning, a neighbour had called to say that Gramps’ curtains had not been opened.
Howard drove the half hour to his Dad’s town to find out what had happened. On entering the house, he found his Dad sitting in his chair, mouth open, hand around his coffee mug, and the TV still on. He had clearly had a massive heart attack or something, and now Howard’s job was to tell the children.
Feeling shocked and upset himself, he was worrying that he wouldn’t be able to let the children know without crying himself.
“It’s okay to cry,” I said. ‘In fact, it’s a common thing for people to do when someone dies. The children may certainly feel like it, and you can cry too if the tears are there to be felt.”
This is just one of the misgivings that people have when it comes to talking with children about death. Somehow it is as if we want to protect them from something that is in fact a necessary part of being alive.
Here are 3 more things people worry about when needing to talk with children, and what to do about them.
Use simple, clear words that mean what you say. For instance, don’t say, “The angels came to get him.” Instead, say, “He died.” Don’t say, “We’ve lost Gramps,” as they might wonder where he has gone, but say, “Gramps died last night.”
Studies have shown that using unequivocal and realistic words helps the grieving process. It can also avoid a lot of confusion later on.
Children are often better able to cope with death than you think, especially when you keep the words simple. You just say baldly what has happened and explain that you are there for them. You can also add that the person who has died is there as well, though no longer in a bodily form.
If there is one occasion when it is okay – better yet, it’s good! – for children to see adults get emotional it is when they are grieving. It demonstrates that feeling your feelings is okay, which gives them permission to feel their own feelings, no matter what they are.
You can explain that grief affects different people in different ways, and that all feelings are perfectly normal, from sadness, tears, and miserable feelings to bewilderment, confusion, anger, and fear.
But this only works if you are willing to let your own feelings be felt. Remember the famous saying of Louise L. Hay, “What you feel you can heal.”
One of the paradoxes of life and death is that even when one person’s life has come to an end, life in general for other people continues. This is normal, and therefore it is healthy for a child to understand it.
Have them continue their normal routine as much as possible, while being sensitive. For instance, unless they want to return to school on the day of a funeral, it might be better that they take the whole day off.
It is fine to demonstrate that the usual activities can be continued, that laughing is acceptable, and that life does carry on.
You can reassure them that they will never forget the person who has died, but they will get used to the fact that they are no longer alive and will accommodate that into their own lives.
What do you think a child should know about death? Have you had that conversation? What did you say? Do you worry about it? Please join in the comments below.