Speaking to Children About Death
The topic of death can be a tricky subject to discuss with others. This becomes even more challenging when the conversation involves children. Recently, there was a study published in the Omega Journal of Death and Dying, by the University of Buffalo, that shows that, because of their content, films produced by Disney and Pixar Studios can be a useful tool in opening up a dialogue about death between adults and children.
Some people believe that children should be shielded from grief and the concept of death, as if their age prevents them from being able to process the complicated feelings and emotions that accompany loss. Thus a death in the family is talked about in hushed tones, conversation ceases when a child enters the room, children are kept from attending funeral services and are seldom told that a loved one is ill until they are dying or have already died. I feel this is a terrible mistake. How is a child to learn proper coping mechanisms if they are shielded from pain? When a loved one passes away, a child feels their absence as deeply as an adult would, yet they are being left out of the process, which can cause additional anxiety, confusion and sadness.
The notion of using animated films to broach the subject of loss introduces a difficult concept in an accessible and relatable way for a child. This allows the adult to speak about death easily, factually, calmly and as often as is deemed necessary.
Here are some tips in exercising this strategy:
1. Remain calm and use only factual information when answering your child's questions. Avoid lengthy responses, beware of oversharing, and always keep it age-appropriate. Avoid explanations such as “grandma has gone to sleep” or "we lost grandma today", as phrases such as these are confusing to a young child. The child may think, but not express to you, "what will happen if I go to sleep?" or "why can't we find her?". It may seem blunt or harsh to tell a child that someone they loved is "dead", but that is the truth. Words like death and dying should not be avoided. They are straight, and to the point and honesty is key.
2. Children grieve differently than adults. They have a tendency to move in and out of grief, being terribly upset one moment and playing with their Legos the next. They may feel waves of grief, at times even failing to remember that someone has passed, and then being inconsolable when they are reminded. Conversations may have to happen several times, over days, weeks, or months as they process the information and have more questions.
3. Talk about their emotions and share your emotions with them. If they see you crying or upset, that signals to them that those are natural and healthy responses to grief. Explain that it is okay to cry, and it is also okay to not cry. Grief is a journey that differs for everyone affected by the loss.
4. Don’t hesitate to get help for yourself or your child if you are struggling. A child may not reach out for many reasons, they may not want to upset you more than you already are, they may feel embarrassed, or they may even feel like something is wrong with them, or feel guilty or somehow responsible in some way. Seeking professional help is never a weakness, and if you are not coping, it is far more difficult to be a good example of healthy grieving and/or to support your child in their grief journey.
There are no stringent "right" or "wrong" ways to grieve, include your children in the process and help each other move forward and heal together.