Learning how to talk to your child about the death of a family member is one of the hardest lessons you’ll ever have to learn as parents. It would be a brutal conversation, especially if your child was close to your lost loved one. Don’t think it’s any easier if he never met great aunt Sally, even the death of a somewhat distant relative raises a lot of questions from children. Every child is different, and this discussion doesn’t come with a hard set of rules, but we’ve come up with a few tips for how to talk to your child about the death of a family member to keep in mind.
How to Talk to Your Child About the Death of a Family Member
Age is a major factor in determining how to talk to your child about the death of a family member. You can be a lot more open about it with your teenager than you can with your toddler or preschooler. That’s not to say you should keep your little one in the dark, but obviously, your whole language is going to change.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Children this young don’t really understand the concept of death the way an older child might. For distant relatives that they’ve never met, I wouldn’t go into a ton of detail. It’s hard to explain to a child that Aunt Betty is gone when they’ve never seen her to begin with. If your toddler notices that you’re sad, you can keep it simple and say “mommy is sad because she misses her aunt, how about we play a game to cheer Mommy up?”
Closer losses are, of course, more difficult. You’ll need to explain their absence to your child. KidsHealth explains that children this age understand that bodies work or don’t work, not that we live and die. They recommend explaining to your child that grandma’s body stopped working. Please do not say that grandma “went to sleep” or “went away.” These words imply that she will either wake up or come back, which opens up a whole world of confusion and concern for little ones. In fact, “went to sleep” is one of the worst things you can say to a child this age, because they’ll be terrified that they’ll go to sleep and never wake up too. Remember, very young children are extremely literal.
Sometimes kids this age relate better to characters on their favorite shows. After your discussion, you can reinforce it with a children’s show that tackles the subject. If your child watches reruns of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS, he did a great show on loss once. In the video below, you can either show them the entire episode, or fast forward to about 7:45 minutes in, where he talks about the loss of his dog. Check out The Fred Rogers company website for more great insight from Mr. Rogers on how to talk to your child about the death of a family member.
Elementary School Kids (around ages 7-12)
Kids that are between the ages of 7-12 are just starting to really understand what death actually is. They may not fully get it but they have a basic understanding of what it means. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make talking to your kids about death any easier. In fact, this is probably the hardest age group to discuss it with.
At this age, kids may view death as a physical entity: a skeleton or ghost. They also tend to be “bargainers,” thinking that if they behave, grandma will come back. Death can hit school age kids pretty hard. My son is 10. When he hit around 7 or 8, he suddenly started grieving the loss of not only my grandparents that he didn’t know that well, but also every single family pet- including the fish- that passed away since his birth. He doesn’t even remember the name of “the orange cat that lived under my bed for a month” but he misses her (our cat Sabrina hid under his bed for like 23 hours a day when we first moved into this house). We’ve had many discussions about death in the last few years.
At this age, it is better to provide them with explanations that are honest, simple, accurate and clear. It’s almost harder to say the words “grandma died” to kids this age because you know they know what it means. It’s just heart wrenching, and you might get choked up. The most important part of the conversation isn’t so much what you say, but what you let them say. Give them a chance to memorialize their lost loved one, even if Great Aunt Betty, who they never met. To them, it’s the concept that they know someone who died that hits hard. When it’s someone closer to them, be prepared to help them through the grief, even though you’re going through it too. At this point, I’d recommend counseling, especially if your child lingers in the “anger” stage and begins acting out (which, by the way, is normal, but still needs to be addressed).
Teenagers are at the age where they understand that people die at some time in their life. They may be hesitant to do certain things after someone dies though. For instance, if a friend or family member died in a car accident, your teen may be afraid to drive their own car for a while. Respond to their fears by reminding them how they can stay safe on the road and that you understand their fears.
When the loss is someone close to your family, it’s also important to let teens be part of the “inner circle” that forms after the death. Do you know what I mean? The family table, the “hugging huddle,” the group that gets together to talk about the good times. Basically, the people who were closest to your loved one. Invite your teen into the circle, let them share their memories and, for the loss of a parent, value their input.
At the same time, give them their space if they need it. Allow them to invite a close friend (or boyfriend/girlfriend, for older teens, if they’ve been dating a while) if the services are for a very close family member. Yes, it’s family time, but your teen needs someone to lean on too, and they may feel like you’re busy with other details. Or they just might feel like they can express their grief better to a peer.
Again, there are no hard rules for knowing how to talk to your child about the death of a family member. I wish I had the one magical answer that would make this conversation a breeze. I’ve been through it with my son. I’m afraid I’ll go through it again before my son is an adult. Loss and death is one of the saddest parts of life. Above everything else, just being there for your child is the most important thing you can do. Your presence goes beyond any words you can say.