Talking to children about death and grief

Talking to children about death and grief

I once had a parent who asked me, “Chaplain, I am afraid for my young children. I mean, I just don’t know how I can tell them that their daddy is very sick and that he may die soon.” At other times a mother may ask me if a child is too young to be told that a grandparent is in hospice. What these two questions illustrate is the internal conflict that parents feel when death affects their loved ones and small children have to also be told the bad.

As parents, we want to shield our children from pain whether emotional or physical. When it comes to talking about death, we worry that they may not understand. Or we worry that they will understand too much. We worry that the realization of our own human frailty will be too much to cope with. The fact is that grief is something that we all experience sooner or later. Talking to children about loss rather than excluding them can actually make the experience easier.

When it comes to talking about loss, timing and approach are crucial. Children can handle loss if the way it is explained to them is appropriate for their age.

Some families that I have encountered through my work and ministry as a Hospice Chaplain prefer to keep some details from their children to not “make them fear death;” others prefer to share some details about how they are struggling with their own pain and suffering through grief; and, still, others simply find creative ways to share sorrow as a family. And, yes some families share everything with their children.

Use your knowledge as a parent to adapt the message to the age, maturity, and personality of your child. If a grandparent dies, but the child was not close to them my recommendation is to let the child grow with a general understanding of family without stressing the details of the death. Sometimes children will ask questions about why a relative is not around anymore or why they got sick or had to die.

A good rule of thumb is to be honest and to express your own resiliency and fortitude. Some children name one of their toys as grandpa or grandma or daddy or mommy etc. This is because children process things better via imaginative games. In play, children create and destroy worlds but oftentimes, they can find meaning and sense for what they are struggling with.

Of course, not all children process grief the same way. Some children grieve quietly because they have been warned or taught never to shed a tear or to show emotional weakness. However, the child is grieving and if not kindly dealt with, it may lead a child to learn that grief is wrong or sinful. Neither of these outcomes of course is true. Furthermore, the most dangerous outcome is for the child to become violent. Again, helping one’s child understand and deal with their particular kind of grief is always best done in a context of love and acceptance.

A family’s faith can also be a powerful tool to help children deal with loss. Sometimes children understand death as simply Jesus asking their loved one to visit him. A child’s faith is simple and concrete. They listen to adults speak about death and learn to accept a cold reality, namely, that human life is fragile and finite.

As a Hospice Chaplain under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, I speak to children as members of the family that is grieving the loss of a beloved relative. I am persuaded that as long as parents are honest about their own sense of loss that they will find their children thrive rather than hide their own suffering.

It is always important to keep in mind that children are resilient. If the news of a loved one’s passing is shared according to the child’s age and temperament in an environment of love and acceptance permeated by faith and friendship, they will thrive to healthier tomorrows.

Gerlin Valencia, MDiv, ThM, PhD, is Chaplain for Allied Services Hospice & Palliative Care.

Learn more about Allied Services Hospice by calling 570.341.4320 or clicking here.