In a world where bad news is everywhere, our kids have access to information about global tragedies, including wars, terrorism, natural disasters, hate crimes, school shootings, and even the recent COVID-19 pandemic. That means we parents are having hard conversations to help our kids understand and grieve.
It’s tough enough to talk with a kid about the death of a loved one—helping them comprehend greater loss is even more confounding. Nevertheless, it is important that we raise kids with empathy—kids who understand the value of human life.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, for example, unimaginable numbers of people are losing their lives worldwide. In America, hundreds of educators—and nearly 100,000 people—have died. But how do we talk to our kids about death? How do we help them cope and grieve for not only those close to them, but also those lost in mass-casualty events? Here are research-driven strategies for helping your kid comprehend and mourn losses.
Know that everyone grieves differently
Kids of various ages grieve differently—whereas elementary school kids may have bad dreams and become clingy or distressed, sometimes even blaming themselves for the death, teenagers may become distracted, seek social isolation, and have bursts of strong emotions, including fear, anger, and guilt.
First, learn how different age groups grieve, then think about how your kid tends to deal with stress and anxiety. You can use past behaviors in stressful situations to understand how your kid might react to loss. If they’ve tended to get irritable and sleepless, these may be reactions to expect. Many reactions, though, may be unexpected, as grief is expressed in so many different ways. If your kid is acting out at the funeral, for example, that may be a sign of grief rather than disrespect.
Answer questions to stay age-appropriate
The biggest help for a kid grieving is to have someone who cares there to listen and calm their worries and answer questions. Instead of telling your kid what you think they need to know, stay age-appropriate by simply answering their questions.
Your presence will be the biggest support you can give. It only takes five to 20 minutes for a kid to feel secure and loved—these short bursts of 1:1 attention are important to helping your kid feel important and heard, especially in times of uncertainty. If your kid is reluctant to talk, ask questions like:
- What have you heard?
- What questions do you have?
- How are you feeling?
If you’re worried about how much information to divulge about death or tragic events, the best rule of thumb is to first listen and answer the questions your kid is asking. You’ll get insights into their current understanding of death and be able to tailor answers to meet them where they are in their understanding of death. According to the Stanford’s Children’s Hospital, the following are typical ideas of death based on common developmental ages:
- Baby: No concept of death, but a strong reaction to parental separation and routine changes.
- Toddler: Little concept of death, including an unclear connection between life and death and a lack of understanding of death’s permanence. Toddlers mirror the emotions of adults around them, who may be sad, mad, or scared.
- Preschool: Developing understanding of death, but often lacking understanding of permanence and how death happens (what causes death). Cartoons provide unrealistic understanding of death; kids at this age may ask a lot of questions about the basics of death—how and why it happens.
- School-age: Realistic understanding of death, including its permanence and inevitability. School-aged kids may ask a lot of questions about the specifics of death or fear for their own death or the death of others around them, including parents and other relatives.
- Teen: Most teens understand the key concepts of death, but many teens also live in denial of their own mortality. They may have trouble expressing their feelings about death or loss.
Tell it like it is
It can be tempting to use euphemisms to soften sad news for your kid, but unclear messaging about death can actually cause more harm than good.
Many find using the words dead or died uncomfortable—and prefer using phrases like, passed away, lost, crossed over, went to sleep,” says psychologist Deborah Serani. “But research shows that using realistic words to describe death helps the grieving process.”
It can be frightening to hear that someone “went to sleep, forever.” Kids are literal and can be easily confused by unclear language. So, instead of ruining bedtime for your kid for months to come, speak about death using clear, direct words.
While there is no script for talking about death—the conversation will depend on your kid’s age, understanding, curiosity, and closeness to the person who has died.
Be an emotional sherpa
In your role as a parent, model self-care and emotional health. Show your kid what it looks like to grieve, to feel loss, and to lean on others for support. Take care of yourself while you’re grieving and ask for help when you need it. By modeling what grieving looks like, you will help your kid develop their own coping mechanisms for grief.
Memorialize the person(s)
Find a way to memorialize the person (or people) who has died. Rituals, such as funerals or wakes, are important steps to regaining control while coping with loss. They also give kids and adults space and time to acknowledge the reality of death, support one another, and even develop a new social identity (as a child without a mother, for example).
Taking time to remember a loved one who has died is also a way for your kid to recall good moments together. This will help your kid find meaning in their own life and inevitable death. Talking about positive memories is a way to encourage the open sharing of emotions during grief.
When a tragedy is national or international and your kid has questions or you want to help your kid understand its meaning for your family, do something to commemorate the lives of those lost. Some ideas:
- Create a memorial service
- Plant a tree to symbolize ongoing memories and impact
- Write cards to send to those directly impacted
- Make art in memory of the tragedy
- Donate to a charity focused on preventing future losses of that nature
Talking about death and loss with your kid can be unnerving, but you don’t have to know everything. You just need to be there to reassure, love, and care.