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When Explaining Death to Young Kids, We Must First Understand How They Grieve

explaining death
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“If I don’t get older soon, I’m never going to die and get to see Grandpa again.”

Those words stopped me cold one afternoon on a regular Tuesday drive with my 5-year-old son. We’d been talking about nothing, or so I thought, as he was absorbed in his standard rapid-fire line of questioning. “How many days until my next birthday?” he asked. I was busy thinking about the million things that needed tending to that day so I dismissed him quickly, “It was just your birthday. Not for a long time.”

That’s when he said it. The acquitted candor of a child who’d lost his grandfather months earlier. It was hard to know how much to explain about his sudden death. The small number of years the two had together spoke little of the bond they formed. We’d considered telling our son his grandpa had gotten sick and then second-guessed the explanation.

What if he worried the next time he got sick he might die? We settled on telling him that his grandpa had fallen ill because of his age, and that the doctors did the very best they could to try to save him. We said that he lived a long, happy life and that sometimes when you reach a certain age, your body decides it’s had enough.

The truth was he had so much life left to live. At just 67 years of age, he’d been given a clean bill of health at his doctor’s appointment weeks earlier. He developed acute pancreatitis and died within 36 hours. He’d been robbed of so much more time with us all.

That level of detail was not appropriate for a 5-year-old child, but it was difficult to explain his sudden passing when we had so many questions ourselves. When it comes to explaining death to a child, when is enough detail, enough? How can parents help children cope with grief at a time when we are dealing with our own?

According to the experts, the best thing we can do as parents is empower our children when they are overwhelmed.
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“While grief itself is natural, it is not normative to experience the death of a parent, caregiver, or sibling during childhood — it is unexpected and disruptive to a child’s life,” says Dr. Brook Griese, licensed psychologist and CEO of Judi’s House/JAG Institute, a nonprofit devoted solely to supporting grieving children and their families.

It is important to understand how your child is processing their grief. “Children don’t always verbalize or feel safe enough to ask questions about their feelings,” Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at New York Medical College and co-founder of Everyday Parenting Psychology, LLC explains. Being able to determine if their feelings of grief are driving “fight or flight” behavior in your child is critical.

If your child is acting out, being perceptive to their “fight” response can make parents more empathetic. “Anxiety comes across as more fight than flight. But what is driving that worry or aggressive behavior may be fear,” Sawyer says.

“Grief reactions in young children can include frequent headaches or stomach aches, or explosive actions like kicking doors or other people,” explains Griese. By asking questions like, “Are you thinking about grandpa right now?” may allow your child to open up to the “missing feelings” they are experiencing.

“It is also not uncommon for grieving children to regress, reverting to thumb sucking, baby talk, or even revisiting the need for potty training,” so it is important to stay tuned into your child and their emotional and physical responses. Adults have the ability to compartmentalize and understand why they are acting out. Often, young children do not.

According to the experts, the best thing we can do as parents is empower our children when they are overwhelmed.

No one, not even adults, wants to feel passive in the grieving process. “Talk with your child about what they might actively do with the ‘missing feelings’ when a loved one dies,” Sawyer suggests. “For instance, when I miss grandpa I cry sometimes. I might also want to look at photographs of him or share funny memories.”

Parents can also help kids make a “worry sculpture” out of Play-Doh. “They can then choose to smash it or contain it with Popsicle sticks to feel more in control of their fears,” Griese explains. “Permitting your child a sense of control allows them to cope with anger, sadness, or any other emotion they may experience.”

Let your child know it is okay to feel however they are feeling, even if they don’t feel sadness. “It’s not a parent’s job to decide what someone else should feel. It is our job to teach children how to express their big feelings in ways that are safe and appropriate,” Sawyer explains.

Parents must also remember self-care during a time when grief can likely be all-consuming for them as well.

“It is a delicate balance to grieve as a parent while simultaneously managing your child’s emotions,” Sawyer says. “Often parents feel like they have to mask their sadness in order to avoid upsetting their child further. Many adults still believe it is wrong to cry in front of your kids. It is important to be honest and allow your child to see that you can be upset and also move forward. Avoiding all reminders or emotions can leave children in a stuck place,” Sawyer warns.

No matter the age of the child, honesty is key.

As a parent, I needed to know that it is healthy for my son to still question his grandfather’s death. I didn’t botch our original conversation by not answering all of his questions perfectly. Children, like all of us, need time and a safe environment in which to process their feelings.

Death is a part of life — the more open we are about it, the less alone we will all feel.

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