Conversations with Children About Death

by Christi Neville, LPC

As new families filter into the Kids Who Kare program, I’m asked many questions about how to talk to children about death. Children, like adults, differ widely in their reactions to death.  However, we all see that they are not “miniature adults”, and understanding how children conceptualize death within the context of their age range may help parents and caregivers in coping with this process….we have many helpful handouts available at The Christi Center outlining childhood developmental stages of understanding, which I invite you to pick up any time.
Initially telling children about the death of a loved one is monumental; however, it not an ending point of comforting childexplanation, but rather, should ideally be the beginning of an ongoing process of sharing. So whether your family’s loss is new or further along, the following tips may be useful in the ever-evolving conversations with children about death:
  • Be honest.  Let’s face it, we all want to shield our children from pain, but honesty is invaluable in building trust and safety in the relationship.  It does not mean inappropriately sharing every detail with a child, giving them more than they ask for, or speaking above their developmental level.  Use age-appropriate language to offer honest, clear, concise answers to the best of your ability.
  • Limit your responses to the questions asked.  Giving them too much information can be overwhelming….keep it short and simple, and when they’re ready for more, they’ll ask.
  • Avoid euphemisms.  Kids are extremely literal, and need concrete information.  If answers are vague or metaphorical, they are more likely to derive inaccurate conclusions or to have magical thinking.  Avoid terms such as passed away, lost, or went to sleep; instead, use concrete words such as died.
  • Realize it’s OK if you can’t answer everything.  Acknowledging that you don’t know everything gives your child the respect of an honest response – what matters most is simply being available to them.
  • Listen, and reflect that they are being heard.  Reflect back to them your understanding of what they shared, with acceptance and non-judgment.
  • Welcome all feelings….let them know there aren’t any feelings “too big” or “too little” to talk about.
  • Let them know that they did not cause the death.  This ties into developmental stages of understanding, and it is crucial to alleviate any misconceptions that they are responsible for the death.
  • It’s OK to let them see you cry.  Although we want to avoid total emotional collapse in front of a child, sharing tears models the universality and normality of feelings, and gives them permission to express as well.  It also offers a teachable moment to name various emotions in grief that they might not yet have the language for. What’s important is to reassure them that even though you’re feeling sadness in the moment, you will be OK, and that together, you will get through this as a family.
 And finally, no matter how comfortable a child becomes with an age-appropriate discussion of death, they will reprocess the experience and their feelings about it at each developmental level, throughout their lifetime. As a child matures, they will revisit it, need additional information, as well as additional time and space to grieve, and to grow.


About the Author

Christi Neville, LPC is The Christi Center’s Kids Who Kare and Peer Support Coordinator:

“My interest in grief and loss began in 1997, when a tragic accident claimed the love of my life, and catapulted me into a humbling journey of healing. An intern counselor at the time,  I  was astounded to realized our culture’s lack of understanding of grief, and as I committed myself to my own personal growth, my thirst for knowledge led me into professional realms as well.  After graduating with my Master’s in Counseling from The University of Denver in 1999, I began a holistic private practice in Colorado devoted exclusively to grief, and from that foundation, have led support groups for children, for surviving family members at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and have run several hospice bereavement programs.  After relocating back to my native Texas, I was lucky enough to find The Christi Center, and am excited to contribute my blend of personal and professional experience as I support the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of loss.  Outside of work, I enjoy music, meditation, and spending time outside with my super-duper son, who reminds me daily to stay present to the magic and wonder of life.”

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