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We all know death is an inevitable part of life, yet many of us shy away from discussing it with our children.
That’s a mistake.
Though it may be difficult to talk about it, death is a subject that should be openly discussed. After all, children will be exposed to it, whether through a fictional death on screen, the loss of a cherished pet or the passing of a loved one. And if it’s not your family that’s experiencing the loss, it will be that of a schoolmate, neighbor or friend.
It’s why being prepared to speak to your children about this sad reality is key to helping them make sense of — and accept — what’s happened. Here are key steps in the process:
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Being honest about the end of life helps kids learn how to mourn and explains your tears and pain. It’s even more critical when a loved one or pet is facing an extended illness and is expected to die. Children can sense when things are wrong — and when things are being kept from them — and that can make them anxious and fearful.
Keep it simple
Candor is important; use the words “dead” or “died” as opposed to “lost,” “crossed over” or “went to sleep.” Relay information in short, age-appropriate bits your children can understand. Using clear, realistic words lets them understand, for example, that when Grandma died, she stopped breathing and feeling.
If your child questions you about things you’re unsure how to answer or are not prepared to discuss, it’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” and leave it at that.
Give them time to process
No matter how you approach the subject, your child will be upset and possibly angry. Expect a range of emotions and give them space to process the initial trauma.
Because your kids may have seen video games and movies where people come back to life, they may not understand that death is forever. Bear that in mind and exercise patience when helping your child fully absorb what’s going on.
It’s common for kids to ask, “Will you die?” when discussing death, so be prepared to reassure them — often this is all they need — and let them know you probably won’t die for a very, very long time, but that Auntie, Tío, Grandma or Abuela will be there for them should anything occur.
Talk about a future without your loved one
Prepare kids for upcoming events you normally celebrated with your loved one, such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, and ask your child for input on how they want to remember them on those days.
Crying together is healthy and healing and shows your child it’s normal to feel sad. It also lets them express their emotions in a safe, supportive space, since you’re right there with them and available to listen.
Prepare them for observances of death
Age-appropriate explanations help prepare kids for what to expect in the aftermath of a death. If you’re going to a funeral home or memorial service, they should know how many people may be there, what the place may look like and if there will be a casket (and whether it will be open or closed).
You might also explain burial or cremation. Plus, you’ll need to discuss the “after” part, where food may be served and memories shared. If you think you’ll be too distraught, make sure to bring someone to field questions from and support your child.
Give your child a job at the service. Being responsible for something — be it reading a poem, picking a song or gathering old photos —makes kids feel like a part of the service and helps them navigate an unfamiliar emotional situation.
Continue the discussion
Mourning is a process. Let your child know that it’s not something that’s resolved in days, weeks or even months, and continue to check in with them about their feelings. Keep the love alive. Reminiscing about loved ones helps heal and bring closure.
Take care of yourself
You, too, are no doubt going through your own feelings, so exercise self-care by taking time to nap, meditate, cry — whatever it is you need. Children look to you as a role model; how you behave makes an impression and teaches them how to process death and navigate sorrow.