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Discussing Loss with a Child: Suggestions for Starting the Conversation

Recently, I attended a funeral for my dear friend who had a significant impact during my adolescence. As the days led up to the funeral, I looked for a babysitter but was unable to find one so I needed to take my 5-year old son. I had concerns about what behavior he would have throughout the event and what he would think or take away from it. I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. He was well behaved and respectful throughout the day. He showed sympathy by giving me a tissue when he saw my crying and empathized with my friend’s son who was visibly saddened.

A few days later, we were working on a holiday craft and my son started asking questions about the funeral. “Why did we go?” he asked and “Was she your family?” He was able to reflect on the emotions of others. He commented on my friend’s son’s emotions and said, “It’s good that it wasn’t his mom so he still has someone to care for him.” He stated, “I would be so sad if you died.” He then proceeded to ask questions about how people die.

This situation really had me reflecting about how to talk to children about death and should they attend a funeral.

How to talk to your children about death

When deciding how to talk to a child about death, consider the age and development of the child. Children process death differently than adults. They may realize that they feel sad but may not understand the permanency of death. Here are some suggestions to start the conversation.

  • Be honest and straightforward. Telling a child that a loved one is “in a better place” can be confusing and send a message that there is something wrong with this place. Instead, you could say, “Uncle Jack died in a car accident. That means that we won’t get to see him anymore.”
  • Answer questions honestly and directly. When your child asks when Fluffy the pet turtle is coming home gently remind the child that Fluffy has died and will not be coming home.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Children learn from the way we act and respond in daily events. Shedding tears in sadness of the loss is appropriate for your child to see and it will help them learn how to cope with emotions when they come up. With this, encourage your child to express their emotions.

Remember that children will have their own reaction to loss. Offer empathy and understanding through emotions or disruptive behaviors.

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