Have you ever wondered about how the passing of a loved one would affect your child, and how you might support them—especially if you are grieving yourself? As El Día de los Muertos approaches, this topic has been on our minds, so we asked our friend, positive parenting educator (and multi-hyphenate) Giselle Baumet to give us some sage advice on how to talk to kids about death.
The modern-day Mexican celebration of El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) stems from Aztec practices from over 3,000 years ago.
Per an intriguing article at History.com:
Upon dying, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only after getting through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place. In Nahua rituals honoring the dead, traditionally held in August, family members provided food, water and tools to aid the deceased in this difficult journey. This inspired the contemporary Day of the Dead practice in which people leave food or other offerings on their loved ones’ graves, or set them out on makeshift altars called ofrendas in their homes.
Many in the USA of Mexican descent, as well as other cultures, practice El Día de los Muertos, which takes place on October 31st, the same day as Halloween.
Perhaps your family practices El Día de los Muertos, or it may be that your child will hear of this observance from others, but in either case, your child may wonder about death, especially if they have been exposed to the subject in some way.
At times we avoid discussing the topic of death or dying with children for fear that it will be too hard for them to process.
As parents, we often desire their world to feel good and at peace, and the concept of discussing death can feel counterintuitive to that desire.
If you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one, you know that losing someone you love can be very painful.
In many ways, for children, it is the same. In addition, if someone close to a child dies, the child may develop the fear that their parents may also die, leaving them alone.
As a parent, we have a tremendous responsibility to influence and form a child’s thoughts and feelings about death. We can lay a foundation to develop a solid perspective on the concept of death and dying, and allow the child to express feelings and emotions openly.
In this article, we will discuss how to talk to kids about death from a child’s perspective so that in spite of the pain they may experience if someone close to them dies, they are able to process death with an understanding of the cycle of life, as well as a sense of safety and security.
Educate on the Reality of Death
Education is the key. It is crucial to help your child to understand death before it touches their life. One suggestion to help the child understand the cycle of life and death is to use examples from nature so that the child knows the process before they have to experience it.
The more you discuss and educate about death through nature, in the same tone and normality that you might discuss animals, trees, and plants, the less scared your child may be. And ultimately, you can bring the discussion into human life and death through stories of others and your ancestors.
When discussing death, it is essential to keep your child’s age in mind. Your conversation with a preschooler child will significantly differ from a discussion with a teen. So it is necessary to use words that help your child understand death at their level.
The first time my children learned of death was when I had a miscarriage at 13 weeks of pregnancy. They saw me crying and asked why, and I explained what had happened.
My children understood the cycle of life and death through various animal kingdom stories and family stories. In addition, I had spoken to them about those they had not met, such as my mother’s mother and my father, who died before they were conceived, so they already knew what death was.
Of course, understanding death and experiencing death are different, but I did get to witness how their knowledge kept them feeling safe and secure.
They were allowed to feel their sadness as well as to see mine. And since children are so wise and empathetic, they reminded me that they were alive and present and that I had them, while I also reminded them that I loved them and that my sadness was separate from my love and gratitude for their existence.
When my brother died, I also got to see how my children processed his death, and that they had a sense of security through it. Even today, we share family stories of my brother, and he remains real and present in their lives through the stories I share. Joy and sadness can be present simultaneously, in a harmonious way.
Prepare for the Conversation
Studies have shown that educating a child about the cycle of life and how the body works may positively impact their understanding of death.
The environment and time for talking about death are also crucial. Set up an environment that is familiar and comfortable for your child.
Your child should be free to express and display emotions. A playful environment is a therapeutic method that helps children receive information that is emotionally difficult to process. Have these conversations in an environment that feels natural and normal to your child, such as a nature walk while cuddling or when sharing stories from the past.
When you explain the life cycle and dying process, encourage your child to ask questions. You can tell the child that you may not have all the answers but still reply to questions with honest intention.
Let your child feel that any feeling that they have is normal. For example, the feeling of anger, disgust, and sadness is not a weakness, but shows strength to demonstrate the ability to cope with difficult situations.
Expressing Emotions is Encouraged
So often, we feel pressure not to let our children see our raw emotions. However, it is through our modeling of processing emotions (and coming full circle in our process) that children learn to do the same.
And so, your child will need the space to express their raw emotions should there be a death of someone they know.
Allow the child to participate in rituals you observe after a death in the family.
Allow yourself to feel, and allow your child to observe you as you come full circle through your emotions.
Be mindful of your child, even if they are not expressing their emotions or comprehending what has happened. A simple hug and more one-on-one quality time can be a great comfort to a child.
Even though painful to discuss, do not change the topic or avoid discussing death when a child comes to you.
Allow all emotions to flow, including laughter. You can help your child understand that laughter is a great healing tool. Recalling memories and laughing over old stories are okay, even if tears come right after.
Remember not to expect a time limit on your child’s grief; help the child understand that a new routine will happen sooner or later.
How to Share the News of Death
Children have a keen ability to notice subtle emotional changes. They can grasp your emotions, but may not understand why.
When someone in the family dies, you can share the information in bits and pieces. It will help you gauge the ability of the child to handle the details.
The display of your emotions and expression of pain will help your child learn how to bear with the loss and grieve.
You should be ready for a variety of emotional reactions from the child.
A child may be upset and sad and express the loss differently than you think they would. It will help to prepare to answer the questions and accept the child’s emotional reactions.
Should Your Child Go to the Funeral?
Family members may have many views on whether to take a child to a funeral, but experts believe that if a child expresses interest in going, they should go.
Consider your child’s needs and behavior, keeping in mind how the funeral will take place and such things as an open casket or closed casket.
Explain the funeral process and options to your child and give choices to decide, so the child feels more in control. Then, spend time together, taking care of your child’s mind, body, and spirit wellness, and be present in both mind and body. The healing process takes time for both of you.
How to Comfort a Child after a Death of a Loved One
- Use simple words and calmly share the news of a death. Give your child a moment to take in the information.
- Comfort the child with a hug and let the emotions come out. Give simple replies to the questions and stay together for some time.
- Share your grief and understand the child’s feelings. Console with soft words and remember the good stories you had with the deceased.
- Prepare the child for the changes that might take place in the daily routines, if any. A death in the family might result in some temporary adjustments in routines of all family members.
- Discuss rituals like a funeral or memorial services and seeing many people crying, mourning, etc., and how to greet and talk to them so that child doesn’t feel awkward in the social rituals.
- Help the child remember the person through storytelling and give comfort. Reassure the child if the child feels sad or upset and give time and care to feel better.
Keeping to Routines
Following a routine is usually comforting for young children. So when someone close dies, try to follow your daily schedule as closely as possible. It will help ease some of the child’s behavioral changes. It brings a sense of normalcy in times of death, which can feel disruptive.
Conclusion: How to Talk to Kids About Death
Irrespective of social expectations, practicing and promoting honesty is crucial when educating a child on the reality of death. You can use simple examples to explain the life cycle and describe death. It will help the child develop their understanding and relationship with the realities and concepts of death and be better prepared for when it inevitably comes their way in life.
Giselle Baumet is a Certified Life Coach, positive parenting educator, herbalist, aromatherapist, hypnotherapist, mental health educator, and more. She is also a Piper + Enza expert contributor. Learn more about her work at gisellebaumet.com.