Kids do not come with a manual, and all parents know this. We muddle our way through, reading books and parenting based on knowledge, intuition and care. However, we are sometimes faced with situations in which all the reading in the world cannot prepare us – one such example is talking to a child about the death of a loved one.
According to the Canadian Alliance for Grieving Children and Youth, 1 in 14 youth will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the time they turn 18 years old. This means that even if a death does not occur in your family, it is likely to occur in one of your child’s friend’s family. Quite frankly, most of us aren’t prepared to navigate the death of a loved one ourselves, let alone coach our kids through it. I know this first hand – my mother died of cancer in 2020 when my kids were 3 and 5 years old. Suddenly, I found myself explaining cancer, cremation, and funerals (or lack thereof because we were still dealing with the pandemic) to kiddos who were hurting while I was simultaneously coming apart at the seams.
Here are some things that can be helpful and that research supports as helpful when navigating this new and very stressful reality:
1. Use the “D” word – Say died, death and dying. Avoid using indirect language, such as “Daddy passed away” or “We lost Grandpa.” It is only between the ages of 5 and 7 that kids begin to fully grasp the concept of death, so saying things like “We lost Grandpa” means that Grandpa can, therefore, be found again.
2. Be honest while using age-appropriate language and information. Honesty helps kids feel they can come to you when they have questions, which is half the battle for helping kiddos navigate this difficult time. You won’t always have the answers, which is where books like “When Dinosaurs Die” can help explore feelings and answer questions about death.
3. Help them prepare for the next steps, such as funerals or even ICU visits if your person is still in the hospital. Talk about what they might see (tubes, nurses, etc.) and what they might hear or see (beeping noises, people crying, their person in a casket, etc.). I know a lot of parents might be nervous talking to their kids about what they might see for fear of making their kids sad – I was! However, when kids don’t know what to expect, they are more likely to be fearful. You aren’t making your kids sad by talking about any of this with them; they are already sad. You are helping them cope.
4. Help kids find ways to keep their relationship with their person. A death does not mean the end of the relationship. This is true not only in the days and weeks following the death but for years and always. Make their favourite meal on their birthday, create scrapbooks or photobooks with your kiddo’s favourite pictures of their person, celebrate holidays (i.e. Father’s Day), etc. We will forever make lasagna on Nana’s birthday!
It is really hard work bearing witness to your child’s grief, especially when you are also grieving. Having said that, creating an environment of openness to feelings and willingness to answer questions, no matter how much you fumble or cry yourself, is fostering a healthy grief process in them, which will turn into a lifelong skill for your kiddo. Also, showing up for your kiddos when you are well-supported will make it infinitely easier.
Candace has a Certificate in Children’s Grief and Bereavement from the Toronto SickKids Learning Institute. She has a passion for helping parents and kiddos navigate this difficult time in their lives.