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Difficult Conversations: Explaining Death

Lisa A. Flam
Jan. 13, 2012

Here's how you and your nanny can discuss death with your kids, and help them grieve.

Christina Ciani has been talking to her two boys about death since they were preschoolers.

Ciani taught her boys, now 8 and 12, that while your body will die, your soul lives on. "Everyone comes. We get to love each other and then you move on," says Ciani, 43, in explaining her talks with the boys. "They seemed very comfortable with the eternalness of existence."

That comfort, the Columbus mom feels, helped her boys handle the death of six pets, the passing of her grandmother two years ago, and the sudden collapse of their grandfather, who died of a heart attack when the boys were visiting.

"I worried they would be scared and in shock, but when I spoke with them, their years of knowing death is a part of life gave them an understanding I didn't expect them to have," Ciani notes. They said they'd miss him but knew he was happy and that they were OK.

Katie A. a member of the Care.com Working Moms Message Board recently sent a tragic call for help across the forum. "My nanny passed away from a car accident. How do I go about telling my 5-year old about her?" she posted. She, and many others were at a loss for words.

"The important thing for kids to know is that death is something that happens, and it's OK to be sad about it," says Robi Ludwig, Psy.D, Parenting Expert at Care.com.

"The first thing the parents should be thinking about is, 'what does this loss really mean for a child?'" says Ken Doka, a professor of gerontology at The College of New Rochelle in New York and a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America. "It's how much of a role the person had in a child's life? What meaning did they have? What will this mean for my child's day-to-day life?" And then they want to know who else it's going to happen to.

Whenever you choose to talk to your children about death, experts say parents need to be honest, should acknowledge their pain and be there for them in any way they need. You also need to prepare your nanny to handle questions and their grieving according to your plan. Doka and Luwig offer additional guidelines for helping your child handle death:

Start early. Parents can start the conversation before their family suffers a tragedy. You can talk about death when your children ask questions about something happening in their world, like after seeing a dead bird or hearing that a neighbor died, Doka says. It's best to follow their lead and answer questions when they arise, rather than introducing the subject of death out of the blue, which could be boring or scary for a kid, Doka explains.

"Preschool children may have some idea of what it means, but by age 7 or 8, most kids have a fairly mature grasp of the concept of death," Doka says.

Define death. Doka suggests that parents finish the sentence, "Death is..." themselves, before explaining death to their kids. If children don't understand the concept, he says, you can show them a battery-operated toy in motion, and then remove the battery to show them what it's like when life has stopped. Or, let them listen to their heartbeat and explain that sometimes a person gets sick and their heart stops beating.

Share your faith and beliefs. Tell your kids what you believe happens after death because kids will have spiritual questions, Doka says. "Whatever it is that gives you a sense of meaning, share that with your child," he says, whether it's an idea about heaven or reincarnation.

Say You Don't Know. If you're not sure what you believe, tell your kids. "It's OK for parents to not know everything and to say that," Ludwig states. Parents can say, "'I'd like to believe there's life after death. But I'm not sure what happens,'" she says.

Be truthful. Euphemisms used to explain death can be devastating for kids, Doka says. If you tell a child that her grandmother was so good that God took her to heaven, she might act out, not wanting to be so good that God will want to take her too. That same goes for telling kids that somebody is in a long, peaceful sleep, which may leave kids terrified to go to bed.

"It does no good sugarcoating the death," Doka says. "It's better to be honest and as open as you can be."

Expect questions. When kids learn somebody has died, they might fear that they'll die or that their parents will die. You can strike an optimistic tone and say that most people live for a very long time and have children and grandchildren. But don't make promises because death can be unpredictable.

"You can say, 'I plan to be around for a long time. That's my plan,'"

Ludwig says. "Same thing for kids. Say, 'You're young and you should plan to be here for a long time too. Let's do things to keep you healthy so that happens.'"

Doka says parents can show the steps they are taking to live long lives, like exercise, eating healthfully and going for annual checkups.

Listening to the kinds of questions your children are asking shows what they're struggling with, he says. (Get tips for having difficult conversations with kids ť)

Share your feelings. If you're crying and upset, don't pretend to be happy for your child's sake because that sends a confusing message, Doka says. You can say, "'I'm crying because I miss Grandma,'" Doka says. "That helps that child get in touch with his or her own feelings and know it's OK to cry."

Continue conversations. Parents should engage their children in an ongoing dialog about death. "It's not a one-time thing," Doka says. "This is a conversation over days, weeks months."

Plan memorial tributes. Remember your lost loved ones. Families can toast a departed loved one at a holiday meal, hang a memorial Christmas tree ornament, light candles on birthdays or the anniversary of a death and share stories about those they've lost, Doka says.

Ludwig also suggests helping kids process their feelings by assembling photos of the person or putting together a book about them.

Whether your child is 3 or 13, you'll want to help them express their feelings and process whatever helps them remember their connection to the deceased, Ludwig states.

Monitor the child. Kids may cry and feel sad or angry or younger children may try to keep things normal by playing. Doka says parents should watch out for anything that seems unusual for your child, like excessive nightmares or being distracted in school. If so, he might need more help talking through his feelings.

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