How should you talk to children about death and dying?

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

On the day I am writing this , two Connecticut families have buried their young children. By the time you read this, more young children and the adults who gave their lives will have been laid to rest.

Countless tears will be cried, burst forth, or silently roll down the cheeks of countless people today, and for a very long time.

There has been all kinds of information in various media outlets on how to talk with children about the unimaginably, brutal school massacre in CT. We know from research and practice that children and families are resilient and that while, changed forever from trauma, they can recover with treatment and support.

One piece, I find missing, though, is talking to children about death, particularly the death of other children. We cannot hide the fact that 20 little children died from our children. In the normal scheme of things, we don’t plan to ever have to have these conversations with children. These are hardly normal times and I believe it’s important that we do. If our children ask about death, we need to be prepared to answer.  But how? But how?

Death is a fact of life and if we want to help our children, we need to let them know it’s ok to talk about it, ask questions and express feelings.

By talking about it, at an age appropriate level, we find out what they know or don’t know. We may even be surprised at how much our children already know. They see dead animals by the side of the road. They’ve probably swatted a mosquito and seen us do it. They’ve seen it on TV, movies a and video games. The reality is that many children have also seen death due to violence in their homes and neighborhoods. They know more than we think they do, but they often do not have language to talk about it.

If and when your child asks about the children who’ve died, welcome their question in whatever way they ask it. Take a breath. Stop, put all other distractions aside. Let them talk or ask in the way they need to do it. Often, children are not looking for a detailed explanation about death. They are looking for reassurance.

Using concrete and  accurate language, rather than euphemisms, helps children process what death means. Using phrases like, they went away, God took or needed them or are sleeping forever often increase anxiety and might be seen in new sleep problems and separation anxiety. If someone died and went away  does that mean when my mom or dad leaves me at day care, they might go away for ever?  What if I go to sleep and never wake up? Is God like a kidnapper? Children are very literal creatures.

One concrete way to explain death is by what stops happening with the human body:  we stop breathing, thinking, eating, moving around. We don’t have feelings and don’t laugh or cry. Between the ages of 6-10, children begin to realize that death is permanent. By the time they are adolescents, the permanence of death is more clearly understood. Tell children that people cry and that it’s OK. Adults and children, men and women cry when they are really sad.

Children also know when the adults they count on are dodging the questions or are uncomfortable. If you aren’t comfortable, seek out someone you trust who can support you. It might be a doctor, clergy person or therapist. There are many wonderful books out on how to talk about death with children. Hospices have good resources.

Follow your child’s lead. They will let you know when the conversation is open and when it ends. Have them tell you in their words what they understood about what you said. Keep it honest and concrete. Children understand and can integrate a lot more than we often give them credit for. And as always, we at Aurora Family Service are here to support you and your family. Our number is 1-414-345-4560.

Best wishes for the holidays from all of us at Aurora Family Service.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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