How do I tell the children? Tips on talking to children about deathOctober 24th, 2012 | Posted by in Parenting
Talking about death is difficult no matter the age of the person to whom you are talking, but it is especially difficult when speaking with a child and even more difficult with your own child. In my role as a child life specialist, I support parents and families as they decide how and what they will tell the children about a loved one’s death. Here some tips I share with them.
Be prepared… or as prepared as possible. Sometimes, like in Sami’s story, we received the news that a loved one is sick or dying, and we have some time to process this information emotionally before we have to talk to the kids. In a perfect world, we would have time to think about and maybe even practice what we plan to say. Often when I am talking to parents in this situation, I encourage them to practice their opening line. How will they begin this hard conversation? One way to begin is by asking a question. “What do you think is happening to grandpa?” Children are often aware of much more than we realize; if we open with a question, we can figure out what they already know and go from there.
Be honest. It is important to be honest with your children when sharing sad or painful news; they need to know you are telling them the truth and that they can trust you even when things are hard. This can sometimes be more easily said than done. I encourage parents to break medical information down to its simplest form and talk about the part of the body that is sick or hurt. For example, “Because of Daddy’s cancer, his lungs are very sick, and they are not working the way he needs them to. His lungs are so sick that the medicine can’t help them anymore. Soon his lungs will be too sick to breath, and he will die.” It is also important to use the word “die” or “death” at least once when speaking to your children. It will be hard, you will likely stumble over it, but it is the word that truly confirms for them what you are trying to say.
Sometimes when bad things happen, they happen fast and we don’t have as much time to prepare. We may not feel like we have all the information that we need to be prepared or honest. “I don’t know” is sometimes the best and most honest answer we have. Inevitably children ask the very question we were hoping that they wouldn’t. If you don’t know the answer or how to articulate it, “I don’t know” serves as a place holder to allow you to find the answer or think about the best way to share it.
Think about your setting. Your surroundings set the tone for a discussion. When considering where to talk to your children about a death, you may want to think about more than the location. Who should be in the room? Do you want to talk to all of the children together or separately? What can you bring in to the room that will comfort your child? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but thinking through them will make you feel better prepared.
“Do-overs” are not only allowed, but welcome. When your child asked you that really hard question, you tried your best to give an answer, but now that you think about it again, you wish you could do it differently. Does that sound familiar? It happens in everyday life and it happens in times of crisis, too. If you find yourself wishing you had said it differently or better, admit your mistake to your child and ask for a do-over.
Lastly, every situation is different and the same technique that works for your family may not work for another. If you feel like these tips may not work for you, there are may other resources at your disposal to help support you as you support your child. This list of bereavement books may be a helpful place to start.
By Jaime Bruce Holliman, MA, CCLS: Jaime is a certified child life specialist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital and serves as executive editor of the Child Life Council’s Focus and Bulletin. When she is not supporting families in crisis at the hospital, she can often be found sharing a popsicle or a hotdog with her own family at one of Nashville’s local parks.