This pandemic has brought us to our knees. We hear news of increasing numbers of positive cases and fatalities everyday. There are many many families right now dealing with the death of a near and dear one. So how do we talk to our kids about the death of someone close?
A major idea is: we don’t help kids feel better with loss. We’re not trying to help them fix a feeling.
Grief is not something you work through. Its something you sit in. and if you have someone sitting in grief with you, who allows your feelings, who helps you understand them, then the sitting in grief just starts to feel better over time. Instead of the overwhelming loss, there’s someone there with us. And that’s how we get through that period.
Trauma is never an event. Trauma is not the death of someone in your family. Trauma refers to how an event is processed in your family. If you’re alone with overwhelming feelings, if those feelings are ignored or shamed or pushed away in your family, that becomes traumatic.
So hear me if you’re dealing with the death of a loved one in your family. This doesn’t have to be traumatic. This can be the source of my child’s coping and resilience. When we teach kids that the biggest, most painful events in our life can be connected to and sat in with someone, and helped to be understood, that’s the source of strength and resilience.
So let’s get into what you can do:
1. Be really honest with your kids about death. Age-appropriate information doesn’t scare kids. Being alone and confused scares kids. So prepare your child for the bigness of the news. State it directly. Wait and allow for the feelings. “Hey sweetie I want to talk to you about something, you’re probably going to have big feelings about. Okie…..grandma died yesterday.” If your child is young you can say, “Died means when the body stops working and someone is no longer here” and then pause. And watch your child’s reaction.
It’s possible your child has a completely unexpected reaction. Your child might look up and say, “Can I have a snack?”
and you’re like, “Huh, did they understand anything?”
They did. They’re telling you they’re overwhelmed, not that they didn’t understand.
And to that type of reaction, I would say something like this- “Yeah we’ll get to that snack. I think you’re telling me you’re really thinking about what I’m saying and right now you want to do something else. That’s okay. We’ll talk about it more another time.”
Then move on. Maybe the next day say, “You know I’m thinking about what we spoke about yesterday. If you have any questions, if you have any big feelings, I’m here. I want to keep talking about it when you’re ready.” Then again use your child’s response as a guide.
2. Now let me go over a different response. Your child starts asking questions. Where is she? Am I going to see her again? What did she die of? Are you gonna die? Am I gonna die?
All types of questions that make us as parents go…”Oh my god…this is too much!”
But remember…information doesn’t scare a child. Wondering, being alone, being confused terrifies a child. When a child asks a question, they are ready for a developmentally appropriate response. Now if you’re not sure what response to give, you can say, “That’s a great question. I want to make sure I’m giving you an answer that’s a great answer. I’m going to pause on that and come back to you.”
And then really do that….PAUSE.
Talk to a friend. Send me a DM. Speak to your partner. Look it up. And then really do go back to your child, even if they don’t bring it up again. Do not leave your child wondering- that’s terrifying. That’s the type of processing an event that can become traumatic. Going back to your child even if they don’t bring it up again is healing. It helps the child process.
Let’s go through some of those hard questions:
1. “Am I going to see grandma again?”
“No sweetie, we’re not.”
You can pause. Again be guided by your child’s reaction.
“No, we’re not…and that is so sad…and you can feel so sad and so MAD and so many things…like I do.”
2. Another question that can come up- “Are you gonna die”
This is like the hardest question. and here’s my version of an honest, developmentally appropriate response.
“Well sweetie, you’re asking a really important question. That’s a really tough question. I have every reason to believe that I’m going to be alive and be here for a very very very very very long time…and you’re asking me if I will die. If I can die. And I want to be honest with you. Yes, I can die. One day I will die. And I have very big feelings just thinking about it, I do…”
And then wait….and then PAUSE.
These are tough conversations. Tough conversations are not meant to be ended with a ribbon on top. Again, we don’t work through grief. We sit in grief. We don’t get to some beautiful point in tough conversations. We have them and we sit in them with our kids. And our kids learn that tough things come up and my mom or my dad is right there with me in the toughness. I’m not alone. I have an adult I love and trust right in there with me. That really tough feeling is surrounded with my mom or my dad’s warmth and honesty and directness. And that’s what helps our kids build resilience.
How do you talk to your children about death? Leave your questions and comments below. Let’s talk!