Should Children Be Told When a Death Occurs?

5 min read

The other day, I came across an article about a young married couple who disagreed on how to tell or not tell their children (when they have them) about death and grieving. I began to think about how many other parents and grandparents disagree on what to tell their children and grandchildren about death, as well as how many children and teens often do not receive the correct language about dying and death.

I understand that parents and grandparents want to protect their children and grandchildren from death and from being sad or hurt when a death occurs. However, when a death does occur, it is very important that the children/teens are made aware of who died and to be able to talk about it. Imagine if a pet dies or is hit by a car, and they come home from school and their pet is gone and no one seems to be talking about their pet; it would be distressing and confusing.

There are many children who have grown up with the tacit understanding that no one is allowed to talk about death. They may think that if they do, they will cause pain and hurt to their mother, father, or grandparents and cause them to be very sad as well. Therefore, there is no communication within the family circle; sadness is occurring, but the children don’t know why and might even think it is their fault that the family is so sad.

So, now who do the children go to for help when trying to figure out what they are feeling inside of them because, for example, Grandma or Grandpa has stopped coming by to see them? The child may even think that they are not coming by because of something the child said or did. And when nothing is said, it is very possible that the child/teen could hear about their death from a friend at school, a neighbor, or even someone they see in the store who offers their sympathies to the family.

Euphemisms, even well-intentioned ones, can cause confusion as well. Some well-meaning adult might say something like, “Fred sure looked like he was sleeping peacefully in that casket,” which could cause a child who hears that to be afraid to go to sleep because they might die too. Another person might say, “She was sick and going to die anyway; at least she’s with the angels now.” When the child gets sick, they may think they are going to die too. If the child or teen goes to church or Sunday school and hears someone say, “It was God’s will that Mary died,” it could cause real confusion.

Remember the imaginations of children can go in many different directions. Children often take everything they hear very literally.

So What Should Parents Say?

The key to talking with children when a death occurs is to answer their questions by being honest. Don’t make it sound like a fairy tale, where they live happily ever after. Don’t say someone passed—but rather that they died and explain what that means (they stop breathing, etc.).

If the child is very young, answer in small amounts. Remember their attention span is very short and they can only understand so much at one time. It is also important to speak on the child’s level so they can understand what the adult is trying to tell them. They don’t need technical terms, just simple comforting words and perhaps a hug to help them understand what has happened. If they seem to be afraid or confused that they will die or you will die, it is very important to reassure them they are OK and so are you.

The more the child/teen is told the better off they will be as they get older and have to deal with other deaths in their lives. The more they hear from you, the more they will believe and trust you with their sadness and fears.

On those days when you are having a hard time with your own grief as an adult, perhaps crying, your child or teen may be the one who comforts you because they know why you are sad and they miss the deceased person too. It is OK to share your grief; that gives the child permission to feel what they feel without feeling they are upsetting you.

It is important to notify their teachers and the school counselor that a death has occurred so they can watch for any changes of behavior in the child/teen or changes in their schoolwork and then they can alert you and make you aware of how your child might be responding to the death.

If you decide to take them to the visitation, funeral, or cemetery, be sure to ask them if they want to go; if they don’t, don’t force them to. Instead, make plans to have them stay with one of their friends or a relative.

However, if they say yes, then explain to them what they might see and hear at the visitation, funeral, or cemetery, so they will know what to expect. I also advise going a little early so you and they can have some private time with your deceased loved one before everyone arrives.

If they want to leave, then try to have a plan in place that they can go to a friend’s home or a relative’s home where they can play and not be alone. There are some funeral homes that have supervised play areas in the back or tables where the child can color or read while the visitation is going on. This is a good thing to check on when making arrangements.

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