Death is inevitable, yet it is still considered a ‘taboo’ topic to talk about. Adults have a misconception that children don’t understand death or it’s harmful to discuss death with them and that children should be shielded from this concept. This mindset comes from a place of good intentions, however it goes against the natural resilience that children have.
It’s surprising to know that only 24% of people feel comfortable talking about death, dying or loss with a child, emphasising how important it is to have the conversation.
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When adults avoid discussions about death with children, this often gives them the message that death should be feared rather than being a part of life. Parents and guardians need to be educated, informed and comfortable to talk about death with their kids. The topic of death is no different than talking about sex, bullying and mental health.
‘Death literacy’ is the practical know-how needed to plan well for end-of-life. Currently it’s not a well-established concept in Australia but it should be. Death literacy encompasses learning through experiences, skills, knowledge and taking action. If adults are well-informed with this topic, it will strengthen the relationship with their children and the communities’ capacity to take action and care for one another at times of dying, death, loss and grief.
There are a number of tips that parents and guardians should implement when they talk to children about death. Kerrie Noonan, Clinical Psychologist and Director of The GroundSwell Project shares how you can start the conversation.
1. Don’t compare death to sleep.
Avoid phrases such as ‘grandma has gone to sleep’ or ‘grandpa is sleeping for a long time’. This can be quite confusing and scary for a child as it may make them afraid of falling asleep! It’s important to make a clear distinction as sleeping is something people do when they are alive.
2. Most ideal time to have the discussion
Another important tip to keep in mind is there isn’t a ‘best age’ to talk about death. The best and most ideal time to talk about it is when it happens. People learn best through experience so it’s crucial to include children in hospital visits, dying ritual, especially if someone the child is close to is expected to die. This provides the child with sufficient time to come to terms with it. Remember to be inclusive with children. You can help them feel included by giving them a small task to complete in this situation.
Utilise opportunities and teachable moments when they occur. They are a great segue to start the conversation about death. An example would be not flushing the goldfish or immediately replacing pets when they die. Through pet funerals, kids can learn a lot about grief and the grieving process. It is a natural way to help adults build their knowledge and skills in discussing death with children.
3. Simple phrases
By using simple words and phrases, such as dead, died, their stopped and coffin, this helps young children understand the situation better. An example to say is ‘his heart stopped beating and then his body stopped working and he died’. This method also applies when answering questions. Respond in a factual and straightforward way.
4. Don’t stress
Don’t stress about rushing children when it comes to talking about the grieving process or death. Generally grief comes in short intense bursts. The way children and adults grieve is different and conversations may occur over several days, weeks or months as they become more curious. Go at the pace that the child is comfortable with and always be upfront with them. It’s important to not to make up inaccurate information or provide missing facts if you are unsure because this could potentially be more damaging than the truth. The solution is to tell the child you are not sure and will find out more details for them.
Depending on the child’s age, they may not have the vocabulary to express their emotion and will probably act out how they’re feeling. If kids are having a difficult time talking about their feelings, asking them to draw out emotions might help. However if a child is reluctant to talk, parents and guardians should pay attention to any changes in their behaviour. Some common reactions include denial, fighting, mood swings, self-blame and more. It’s normal to emotions to be expressed and repeated over time. If a child has completely shut down, then that’s the time to get professional help.