Children benefit from having open, honest conversations about dying and death. Some adults may hold back from talking about it because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or because they think children are too young to understand.
But even very young children usually know something is going on. They overhear bits of conversation, notice people stop talking when they enter the room and pick up on people’s stress or sadness. Not being included can make them feel very alone. Without truthful explanations of what’s going on, children are likely to use their imaginations to make sense of things, which can cause tremendous anxiety. They can also lose trust in their surviving caregiver.
Be honest. Respond to questions clearly and honestly, be open and non-judgmental. It’s okay to respond with “I don’t know” if they ask a question and you are unsure of the answer. However, make sure to follow up, telling the child you will find someone who can answer their question for them. Ask open-ended questions to explore what they already know, what they think and what information they’re looking for. For example by being honest with the child you can say, “Something we just don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
Use simple concrete language. Children tend to understand things very literally, so it’s important to use concrete language that can’t be misinterpreted. If Mommy has died, use that word. Telling them she’s gone away, been “lost” or gone to a better place will only raise questions. Will she come back? If she’s lost, can we go find her? What’s so bad about this place – I’m here! I must be bad. If Daddy goes on a business trip, is that the same as mom “going away?”
Check in often. Give children time to process what you’ve talked about. Check with them regularly to see if they have any questions or if there’s something they’ve misunderstood. For example you can ask the child, “Remember when we were drawing a picture of your dad and talking about all the memories you have about him? How did that make you feel?”