Talking to Your Kids About Death

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My In-laws with their grandchildren – one week before the children had to say good-bye to their grandfather.

This week I was on the Parenting Panel at Canada AM chatting about how to discuss death and dying with kids. There is no question, this topic is a tough one for parents. It’s loaded with potentially complicated conversations around faith, spirituality, after-life, and a whole host of other tricky topics.

My young nephew recently said “If we all die, what’s the point of living in the first place?” Yeah, glad it wasn’t me who had to field that one!

My own kids had to deal with the death of both grandfathers within two weeks of each other. Never easy, but there are ways to help get through these difficult times. These are three things that I’ve learned about this topic in my years as a mama.

  1. Don’t replace the fish. A pet provides a wonderful opportunity for children to experience grief for the first time. Don’t try to protect your children from this experience – it will serve them well to get the practice in with a fish. It sure beats the first experience being with a dear loved one. So, fight the urge to run to the pet store and buy a look-a-like fish for your children. You’re not doing them any favours.
  2. Have a funeral dress rehearsal. When I say dress rehearsal, I mean have a dry run at a funeral with someone they may not be close to, perhaps the relative of a neighbour or a friend’s grandparent. I have taken all of my young children to the funeral of someone a little ‘removed’ from them so that their first experience was not too emotional. It introduced them to the ceremony of the funeral and what funeral etiquette and expectations are. They learn to sign the guest book, give condolences, deal with seeing emotional grown-ups, and even talk about the casket situation. I find it prepares them well for what might be a very difficult funeral next time.
  3. Don’t protect them. My teenage son lost a classmate last year. He was unsure about whether he wanted to go to the funeral. Because of his age, I wanted the decision to be his. It gave us the opportunity to discuss why he might want to go:

– He would be supported by his peers
– He would show his support to his friend’s family
– He would be a part of the celebration of his friend’s life
– This is a one shot deal. We don’t want to regret not going.

He decided to go to the funeral and was glad he did – even though it was a very difficult day.

At the end of the day, we need to approach the subject of death and losing a loved one like any other difficult topic – with honesty and in an age-appropriate manner. If kids ask questions, they are ready for the answers and we owe it to them to give them those answers.

Have you had to deal with this very difficult topic with your kids? What was your approach and how did they handle it?

Comments

  1. says

    oh wow! I have never dealt with questions of death with my kids. I never really give this much of a thought until today. You are right, this is something that needs to be discussed with kids too. Death is a reality that none of us can escape. Great tips!

  2. says

    That’s some good advice on how to handle a delicate and difficult subject. I don’t know why people sneak in another goldfish….at some point, the dog or cat is going to die, and then the grandparents, and those aren’t easily replaced with a replica. Everyone does it their own way but you gave some good advice. I’m sorry for your loss.

  3. says

    This is such brilliant post! I do believe that protecting anyone from death (and other problematic subjects) is not doing any favors, especially in the long run. One just has to find the best way to elaborate difficult topics to the little ones.

  4. Britni says

    This is such a hard topic to address. I really like that you are openly talking about it and sharing ideas. I think it just has to be an ongoing conversation. Kids will start asking when they have questions so we just need to be ready to answer them when they come!

  5. Jeanine says

    We’ve had our fair share of death in the family, and with our pets so this is something I’ve talked to my children about regularly. It can be so hard to do but necessary.

  6. says

    This is such a tough topic! I’ve had to help my nieces and nephews with the death conversation because the parents didn’t handle it very well.

  7. says

    These are great tips. We are free thinkers who do not believe in an after life, so we have gently raised our children with that notion. I think being open about death makes it a lot easier when something happens to a loved one..

  8. Rebecca Swenor says

    Death nor funerals are never easy for anyone. I do believe it is not right to protect the children. When my sons fish had died we did have a funeral and did the same thing for their bird. It is a part of life and if we don’t teach them about it than they we just be confused. Thanks for sharing the tips and this is a great topic to discuss.

  9. says

    Such an important topic. I had a brother that died when I was very little, and my parents were devastated so they didn’t address it very well with us, the surviving children. I think that first experience really made death an overwhelming idea to me, and I never developed good coping skills. It is so important to open and honest and supportive. Thanks for the article.

  10. says

    I haven’t had to broach this subject with my girls yet. They are too young to fully grasp the idea of death. However, I’m beginning to think my poor old cat (14 years) is on her way out. I’m desperately hoping I’m wrong but if I’m not, this will be the first time my children have to face the loss of a loved one. I am hoping my kitty decides to stick around for a lot longer yet.

  11. says

    I’ve always struggled with “how young is too young” to go to a funeral. A friend’s mom passed away and my friend’s 4-year-old son went to the funeral and he’s been asking when his grandmother is going to get up out of that box and come home. So, so sad! I think maybe he was too young. It’s a tough call for parents to make. These are really good tips!

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