This is a significant week, as we recognize children’s bereavement and the significance it has in so many lives. On Thursday, November 17th we celebrate Children’s Grief Awareness Day, and the 2nd Annual Canadian Children’s Grief Symposium is being held virtually tomorrow and Wednesday. During this time each year, much-needed attention is brought to the pain kids experience when a loved one dies, and how adults can better support children in their grief; an example of which is by starting the death conversation with them much earlier.
One of the most difficult conversations to have with a child is about death. Usually, we wait until someone or a pet is dying or has died. How strange, really. Why do we wait until we are grieving before we talk about something that we know happens every single day and could happen in the child’s life any time and without warning?
Well, one of the reasons adults avoid the conversation is because we associate death with terrible sadness, loss, and deep pain, and we assume that the child will as well. What kind of adult wants to do that to their happy-go-lucky child? But a child who has not experienced the death of a loved one will not have that same frame of reference. So, the conversation may not be as upsetting for them as we fear.
Also, we fear causing nightmares and perhaps anxiety. But studies show that this is not the case. In fact, having these conversations actually helps many children who, unbeknownst to the adults in their life, have already been worrying about someone in their life dying. After all, they hear references to death in movies, read about it in books, and overhear conversations adults have about the illnesses or deaths of people they know. Just because kids don’t mention something doesn’t mean it isn’t in their thoughts.
And then there is the social fear: What if the child suddenly brings up the topic with other people just out of the blue? Won’t that be embarrassing? Maybe even alarming to the other person?
How, you might ask, do you start talking about dying and death if nothing is actively happening in the child’s world? These aren’t just casual conversations, are they?
Well, actually, they can be. You see, it really just depends on the adult’s disposition when bringing up the conversation. So, to make it more natural, set up the opportunity to talk by watching a movie like “Up” or “Coco” together or maybe read a book where a character dies. But instead of just watching the movie or reading the book, begin a conversation by asking some questions:
Adult: “Do you understand what happened to (name of character who died)?”
Child: “She died.”
Adult: “Do you know what that means?”
Child: “Um, sort of.”
Adults: “What does it mean to you?”
If the child doesn’t really know what it means to die, explain it in simple terms: “It means the heart doesn’t pump blood through the body, the brain doesn’t think anymore, and the person doesn’t breathe anymore. Their body isn’t working anymore.” Give that a chance to sink in and answer any follow-up questions the child may have such as, “Do they still get hungry?” “Can they still talk?”
Once you get a sense that the child has stopped asking follow-up questions, you can now go a little further: “How does that make you feel about (character’s name)’s death?”
Help the child explore and label their feelings.
Child: “I think I would cry if Fluffy died.”
Adult: “So, you would be sad.”
Child: “Ya… especially when I get home from school and if she wasn’t there to meet me at the door, I would be really sad.”
Adult: “Of course! You would miss her, wouldn’t you?”
Child: “Uh huh.” “
Adult: That kind of sadness is called grieving, and it’s very normal.”
You have to gauge the conversation and pay attention, right from the beginning, to the child’s facial expressions and body language. How far the conversation goes really depends on the child. If they start fidgeting and looking like they’ve heard enough for now, it’s time to wind up the conversation.
Regardless of how quickly (or not) the conversation winds up, make sure that you reassure the child that people lean on each other in times of sadness, just like you give them hugs and extra attention if they fall and hurt themselves. What about then taking the conversation to one about how lucky we are to have those we love around us? That allows the dialogue to take on a happier, more positive tone with the message being that we should celebrate the loved ones in our lives.
Don’t be surprised if the child comes back at another point, perhaps the same day, perhaps weeks later, and asks some questions… maybe about things you’ve already explained. Be patient with them. You might ask what they remember from the last time you talked. Answer their questions, even if you are repeating yourself. Their young minds need repetition before new concepts ‘stick’.
What if they ask if anyone you have ever known has died?
If you have experienced the death of a loved one, talk about how it made you feel at the time (name your feelings) and how you feel now. Of course, avoid talking about things that aren’t age-appropriate like details about how the person died. You can talk about the pain you experienced in child-appropriate terms such as, “I was so sad, I didn’t want to go out and do things for a while.” “I had trouble concentrating on my work.”
What if they ask if someone they know might die?
Explain that everything that lives eventually dies but that we do our best to take care of our bodies by eating healthy and exercising. We are careful when we do things, too, so we don’t get hurt.
Whenever you sense that these conversations are winding up, always ask the child if they have any questions and remind them that they can always come to you with their thoughts and questions.
Terri Viola-Wilson is the Program Manager for HHA’s Creating Awareness and Normalizing Death For Youth (C.A.N.D.Y) Café, a proactive program that helps young people talk about difficult concepts and navigate through challenging questions about dying, death, and grief. You can read more about Terri and the C.A.N.D.Y. Café program here. Terri also offers both a single workshop as well as a workshop series called How to Talk to Kids about Dying. You can learn more about how to attend those here.