[IMG alt="How do we approach the topic of "death" with our kids?"]http://www.mothering.com/articles/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-death.jpg[/IMG]I belong to a few online parenting groups in which fellow parents often reach out for advice on challenging conversations with their children. One of the topics that comes up regularly is how to talk to kids about death.

Sometimes it's a pet, a grandparent, a news story, but however its prompted, it's always about how to help a child navigate a complicated and tricky subject. Lisa Howe is a parenting coach, hospice social worker, and a mother. I asked her for some advice on the best approach.

Q1. How should this conversation be approached?

A. The main goal when we are talking to children about death is to normalize it as a part of life and reduce the fear so many of us have around even discussing it. Most people are afraid to even say the word 'death.' Consider how many euphemisms we have to describe when people die. Death and dying are complicated and challenging topics but are also a part of life so our first goal should be to allow and encourage an open conversation. That starts with us getting more comfortable so that we can model that for our children.

Q2. What are the do's and don'ts when talking to a child about death?

A.
  • Avoid euphemisms such as "he fell asleep and just never woke up" because that can lead to a child feeling afraid to go to sleep himself.
  • Focus on the facts in an age appropriate way. For example: "When you die, your heart stops beating and you stop breathing. Your body stops working." Something as straightforward and as simple as that is a perfect answer to the question "What does it mean to die?"
  • Remain open to questions and expect them to come up repeatedly over a period of time.

Related: How To Help Your Children Face Their Fears

Q3. What kinds of reactions and questions can I expect from my child?

A. Death is one of those concepts that we are all still trying to wrap our brains around no matter our age, so you'll find that your child will continue to process it over time. You'll receive questions when you least expect it and it may leave you feeling uncomfortable. My 5-year-old daughter recently talked about her grandfather who is deceased while we were in line at a store in a very matter of fact way and the clerk was visibly uncomfortable, exclaiming, "Well, it just got dark in here, didn't it?!"

Children will ask if people can come back to life or if death is really forever. Young children don't understand the concept of permanence and will slowly accept it over time. You'll find children asking about different things dying as they begin to grasp that bugs die, pets die, and people die.

Q4. How do I know what is 'too much' for my child?

A. I was recently asked by a client about whether or not to allow a child, age 5, to be present when her family had their cherished dog euthanized. I encouraged the mother to ask her daughter. We can trust our children to make decisions if we provide them with honest information. I encouraged her to explain the process to her daughter and to offer her the option. The little girl was adamant that she wanted to be present and the family feels it was incredibly helpful for her understanding and grieving process.

Related: How to Build Resilience in your Sensitive, Emotional Child

Q5. Should children attend funeral and memorial services?

A. I encourage parents to bring their children to funerals or memorial services. Not only can it help provide closure and to create some positive memories surrounding a loss, but it also models for our children that we show up for others. I've heard many stories about how young children can add life and some levity to a funeral, something which families often appreciate so much.

Q6. Can you recommend any helpful resources?

A. My favorite children's book about death is called 'Lifetimes' which does an amazing job of explaining that everything has its lifetime.

I also have a 30-minute recorded talk on how to talk to children about death.

The Expert

Lisa Howe is a parenting coach, hospice social worker, and a mother. Using her knowledge, professional experience, and personal journey as a parent, she coaches other parents to develop happier, healthier, and more peaceful relationships with their children. Lisa is a certified Peaceful Parenting Coach.