How to Talk to Kids and Teens About Death - Pastor Mary Suomala Folkerds

Many people are uncomfortable talking about death, especially with children. As hard as it is to face, death is a natural part of life. Everyone encounters death at some time. If we want to help children through the death of a loved one, we (adults) must be okay with talking about it, and we have to let them know it is okay for them to talk about it. 

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How to Talk to Kids and Teens about Death

Helpful tips for talking to children:

  • Use clear and concise words when talking about death. Small kids do not understand abstract language. Check to see if the child understands what you have said. Consider the age of the children. Older children can have a few more details, and may ask more questions. Younger kids need simple, but true answers.
  • Let your child know that expressing emotions and asking questions is natural and okay. 
  • Do not avoid your child’s questions. Avoidance may heighten their anxiety. Each question deserves a simple and relevant answer. 
  • Don’t be concerned if you are not able to answer every question. It is better to say, “I don’t know” than to give a misleading response. 
  • Remember that children often realize much more than we give them credit for, and that their ability to cope often exceeds our expectations.
  • Children have a short attention span, and that applies to grief as well. They may bounce between emotions, and that is okay. 
  • Reassure them that there are caring adults who love them and will always try their best to keep them safe. 

Things not to say: 

  • “The person who died is sleeping.” This makes them fear sleep. 
  • “God needed another angel.” This may make them think that God randomly takes children.

The Teens Five Tasks of Mourning

1. To accept the reality of the loss 

When someone dies, even if it is expected, there is an initial feeling that it hasn‟t really happened. One of the first things we need to get is that the person is really dead and we will never see them again, hear their voice again, talk to them again…at least not in this lifetime. Helping create, or at least attending the funeral, wake or memorial service can help. So does talking about how the death happened and sharing memories of the person who died. 

2. To experience the pain of grief 

When we lose someone we love, it hurts really badly. As we tell stories about the death and about the person who died, we have strong feelings like sadness, longing, anger, guilt, fear, confusion, and loneliness. These are normal. The more we love someone, the more it hurts to lose them. We can think of painful feelings as expressions of love for the person who died. Some people might be uncomfortable with our strong feelings, so it is important to find understanding people to hang around with. Journaling, doing art, and playing or listening to music can help to. 

3. To adjust to a world in which the deceased is gone 

The realization of what it is like to live without the deceased person usually begins to emerge after about three months. Sometimes we find ourselves thinking we hear their voice or see them driving down the street. We might even pick up the phone to call them. Each time this kind of thing happens is another opportunity to remember the truth: they are gone forever. When an immediate family member dies, there are big changes in family roles and duties. When a best friend, pet or close relative dies, that special someone who occupied our time is no longer there, so our time is spent very differently. Life has dramatically changed. It takes time to get used to this different life. 

4. To reinvest in other activities and relationships 

Sometimes we fear that we will forget our deceased loved one. But really, we never do. Being touched by someone is a forever thing. Some of us worry about replacing the person with someone new, but we can never really replace people since they are one-of-a-kind. If we try to replace someone, things are sure to fail. And if we resist loving again, for fear of replacing them, that, too, is tragic. In healthy grieving, we eventually stop investing so much of ourselves in grieving our loved one. We begin to form other relationships and invest in other activities. This is the way we go on living, even though someone we loved died. 

5. To accurately remember the deceased 

It is normal during the grief process to have all kinds of memories of the deceased and of our past times with them. Some memories are good, and some are not so good. If the relationship was mostly positive, we tend to remember good things at first. If the relationship was hard, we will tend to mostly remember the bad things at first. Eventually, it is important to have a well-rounded memory of the one who died, and of our relationship with them. Our memory is, after all, what we have left of them. 

Adapted by WinterSpring, from William Worden‟s Four Tasks of Mourning.