The death of a family member or a friend is difficult for anyone to deal with, no matter their age. Explaining death to a child can be challenging, as children under six years old typically do not understand that death is permanent. They may believe that the individual who has passed away can return.
When is the best time to tell them that someone has died?
It will be difficult, but the child should know of the death as soon as possible. The longer it is left without telling them, the more likely it is that they will overhear it from someone else. The child should hear the news from someone they trust. Children are sensitive to emotions and changes in the household atmosphere – telling them what has happened sooner rather than later is advised. Find somewhere where you will not be disturbed and where the child will be less likely to be distracted. Ideally, the news needs to come from a member of the child’s family or a trusted guardian.
How to talk to children about death
Be honest and open.
Naturally, you will worry that you might say the wrong thing or upset the child. Try not to avoid the inevitable – be open about what has happened. When the child asks questions, as they are likely to, respond as honestly as you can. It may feel instinctual to hide your feelings in front of them, but expressing emotion when grieving is natural, it is OK for children to see you visibly upset.
Let them express their emotions.
Try to avoid telling children how to feel when they hear about the death of a loved one. Phrases such as ‘don’t worry’ or ‘don’t be sad’ may seem comforting to you, but it may make the child feel like they cannot express their feelings openly. Normally, children will be openly upset that someone they had an attachment to has passed away. They may find it challenging to control their emotions.
Encourage them to ask questions and share memories.
Make sure that the child knows that they can ask questions about what has happened. Children are naturally inquisitive, and they may ask the same question repeatedly if they are struggling to understand. This experience can be distressing while you are grieving, but they may need help processing the information. This is especially true for young children. Let children share memories of the deceased; it will help them process their grief.
Explain what is going to happen next.
If the child is going to attend the funeral of the deceased, explain to them what the funeral will involve. Tell them who will be there and what will happen during the service. They will be thinking (and potentially worrying) about what will happen. By explaining everything to them in advance, they will feel more at ease.
Something to remember…
Everyone reacts differently to death, and this does not only apply to children. Grief and loss are incredibly difficult to process, and we need time to come to terms with what has happened.