Death is an inescapable part of life. So how do you talk to your kids about this tough and emotional subject?
My first experience of dealing with death was when I was around seven. My maternal grandmother unexpectedly died of diabetes. At the time, no one told me anything about what or why it happened, so when I finally saw her body, I was inconsolable. I remember wailing so loudly that the entire estate could’ve heard me. As the years went on and my remaining grandparents passed away, I was able to better handle – or maybe just suppress – my emotions. No more loud wailing.
When I look back, however, I realise that no one has sat me down and talked to me about the topic of death. Sure, it’s a macabre one to explain to the kids, but we should know by now that children are smart enough to understand complex and/or difficult topics…
Why should you talk about death to kids?
It’s only natural as a parent that you’d want to shield your children from all the bad things – death and dying included. However, death is inevitable and will present itself at some point in unexpected ways. Thus, it’s good practice to have these conversations early. Knowing and understanding this topic earlier lets them know that it’s normal. This also minimises the likelihood of them feeling anxious and scared when they encounter a death later in life.
When should you talk about death to kids?
As soon as possible. Even though age plays a large role in how to talk about death to your kids, at the end of the day, you know your child best. Personality traits and temperament are other factors that can impact how they can understand the subject. If you have more than one kid in your family, you might talk with the children together or separately.
The do’s and don’ts of talking about death
1. Do define a death directly
Avoid using euphemisms like “passed away”, “crossed over”, or “has left us”. Adults use them to avoid uncomfortable subjects, but children, who think literally throughout their childhood, may not pick up on these cues. Especially if you were to use “gone to sleep” – your youngling might get frightened and won’t go to sleep because they’re afraid of not waking up. Simply say that “they have died” or “they are dead”.
2. Don’t explain too much in one sitting
Take things slowly and only share with your children at a rate that they can handle. For the littlies, use basic, simple, yet accurate terms. Take precautions when sharing details of the dead person’s pain and suffering. Less is more. You’ll know how well to answer and explain based on the questions your kiddo asks. For the adolescents, their understanding of death has already evolved, so naturally, questions may come up about mortality and vulnerability. Encourage your teen to share their feelings instead of keeping them bottled up inside.
3. Don’t dodge their questions
Kids are curious creatures (age notwithstanding) and bound to have many queries about death and dying. At such a sensitive time, having all the answers is never easy. If there are questions that stump you, don’t fabricate your answers. It’s better to say “I don’t know”. You can also add that you’ll try to find out. Be sure to follow through with if you do promise to “find out”!
4. Do let them (and yourself) grieve
Don’t chastise your kid with phrases like “toughen up” or “be a man/woman/grown-up” when they’re grieving. It’s common for children to be silent, feel lonely and isolate themselves, or even seem unaffected by the loss. There’s no right way to grieve. Instead, check in and be available for continual discussions. Give them plenty of hugs and comfort; don’t hold back on the affection. Mourning is a process, so don’t put a time limit on your child’s bereavement – or your own.
On that note, don’t hide your grief either. This is an indication to your little people that it’s normal and healthy to cry and feel sad after a significant loss.
5. Do memorialise the dead
Every individual needs to say their “goodbyes” to the deceased in their own ways. If your little person is okay with it, let them participate in the wake or funeral. Just be sure to prepare them for what it’ll be like, what they’ll be doing, and how people will be feeling. If they’re not ready to attend, find other ways to honour the dead, like lighting a candle, singing songs, and drawing pictures.
Share memories of the dead, be it going through old photographs together or anecdotes. Prince William constantly talks about his mother to his children, both to keep memories of her alive and to share with them what she was like when she was still alive. This is one practice that we recommend you do with your kiddos too.
Additional resources to help you out
We’ve already listed down some great books that can be of help to you, but as they say, the more the merrier, right? Here are a few others – books and non-books – that you can use to illustrate the meaning of death to your children.
The Flat Rabbit by Bárður Oskarsson
This picture book tells the story of a dog and a rat that come upon a flattened rabbit out on the road one day. But what do they do with it? Sparsely told with simple artwork, this easy reading approaches the concept of death with compassion, a tinge of humour, and practicality.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved
What would you do when your grandparent is ill and closer to death each passing day? This illustrated book tenderly discusses the value of life and losing it, and the importance of being able to say goodbye. Have some tissues handy, there’ll be no dry eyes once you reach the last page…
My Father’s Arms Are A Boat by Stein Erik Lunde
When it was released in 2009, this children’s book won accolades and acclaim for its touching portrayal of death, grief, and loss. Now that it’s been translated, pick up a copy and read it with the littlies. You may have to deal with more questions after this, but it’s a good parent-child bonding experience as you two learn more about this emotional subject.
Disney’s The Lion King
We all know this movie, what happened, and how it ended. As traumatising as it may be, this revered Disney animated film is a good example of how to explain (untimely) death to the kiddos. Not-so-fun-fact: originally, Simba and Mufasa were also slated to die at the movie’s climax. Can you imagine the collective traumatised childhoods we all would have had if that ending were real?
Watch on Disney+
Another movie that requires no introduction nor further explanation. I was crying buckets by its conclusion. (It’s not just me – HoneyKids mummy Jana also admitted to bawling her eyes out!). This animated film touched on a few topics sensitively, namely about grandparents, old age, and what happens after death. A good one for repeated viewing.
Watch on Disney+
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
For the young adults, pick up this low fantasy novel, which follows a 13-year-old Connor grappling with the consequences of his mother’s illness. The story was originally conceived while Sophie Dowd, the original author, had cancer; Patrick Ness was selected to write it after Dowd’s death. The book has been adapted into a live-action film, which received universally positive reviews just like the book.
Watch on Prime Video
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 Episode 16: “The Body”
Those who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s will know this show very well. This specific episode comes highly recommended by me because, for a fantasy-horror show, it handled the death of a character dearest to the protagonist in the most realistic manner. Even vampires and former demons learn to understand death and grief in this episode. And yes, I did cry terribly throughout the episode. If you don’t believe how emotional this episode is, just see the reaction videos up on YouTube. Appropriate viewing for adolescents and above.
Watch on Disney+
Talking to Kids About Death and Grief: 10 Comprehensive Tips
If you’re looking for an extensive guide on how to navigate this tricky, What’s Your Grief has listed down 10 helpful tips on its website. Warning: there are no scripted answers for you to print out, memorise, and regurgitate.
At the end of the day: trust yourself.
It’s normal to be afraid and uncertain about broaching this emotional subject with your children. But, just know that your kiddo feels safe with you and that they can handle this better than you realise. If you’re unsure, practise having this conversation with a fellow adult before you speak with your kids.
You got this, parents!