“Daddy, what happens when you die?”
Gulp. Depending on how prepared you are for this question, your answer may range anywhere from weirdly avoidant (“Why do you ask?” or “Where did you hear that word?” or “Go ask your mother!”) to confusing(“You’re too young to understand—hey, aren’t you tired?!”). But we’ve got you. Moms and Pops, take a deep breath (and/or a swig of Bourbon) and read on.
There are two main reasons why children start asking about death. The first is when they’re introduced to the word and become curious. The second is if they know of someone who is either dying or has passed away—even when that someone is a pet goldfish. Either way, it’s easy to be caught off guard, but a little preparation can help you create a healthy and less nerve-wracking conversation around the topic.
What Happens After You Die?
This is where clarifying your personal beliefs can be a good move. The idea of losing a loved one may be quite upsetting, and a child who is considering their own mortality for the first time can find death super-duper scary. Try to be prepared with a simple, direct explanation of what you believe happens when someone dies. If you’re unsure, you might share your thoughts on what other cultures and religions believe. To some degree, children are looking for concrete answers. But more importantly, your comfort in talking openly with them—and hearing their thoughts and concerns—will bring them lots of peace and understanding.
When Are They Coming Back?
Depending on your child’s age, their understanding of death and its permanence will differ. Kids younger than seven often view death as temporary, so don’t be surprised if they expect to see Grandma at Thanksgiving. Gentle reminders will help them grasp that people who die don’t come back, and with time it’ll sink in. By seven or eight they become more capable of accepting the finality of loss, but it’s still better to use straightforward words like “dying” vs. “passed away” or “sleeping” to avoid any unnecessary confusion.
Take Your Child’s Lead
Even if you’ve prepared an entire speech for the occasion, try to stay focused on the question your child is actually asking. Their degree of curiosity will likely be age appropriate, so no need to take the conversation to another level by answering ones that they haven’t even asked yet. Questions like “Do you believe in heaven?” can be met with a simple “yes” or “no.” If they want to know more, they’ll let you know; and if you’d like to share more, check to see if they’re interested first.
Show Them How It Feels
The best way to help your child grieve after a loss is to show them that tears and hugs are welcome—and expected—by sharing your own tears and hugs. Grief becomes much more complicated when emotions are kept inside, so teaching them to express how they feel in words and actions can really help them go with whatever feels natural in the moment. The opposite is also true. The more we hide our emotions, the more our children learn to do the same.
Involve Them (If They’re Comfortable)
If your child has experienced a loss and there are plans for a funeral, wake, burial or ceremony of some sort, ask them if they’d like to join you in the planning and/or day of activities. They may jump at the chance to find the perfect box for Goldie (the goldfish) or feel connected by taking the time to select a song or outfit for the funeral. Their involvement helps them establish personally meaningful memories that they can reflect back on.
Support Their Process
As adults we know that grief is unpredictable and each loss is unique, so talk to your child about all the different ways it might be affecting them. Let them know that anger, sadness, frustration and laughter are all very normal ways to react. Assure them that confusion is OK and offer them a safe and accepting place to ask questions.
Talking to kids about death isn’t about having all the right answers. It’s about letting them know that you hear them and are there for them always.
Grace Y. Lin is a mom, wife and Licensed Behavioral Therapist living and practicing in New York. Visit her website here.