How to talk to your kids about death

Tips from Julie Cole

by Julie Cole
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My In-laws with their grandchildren – one week before the children had to say good-bye to their grandfather.

This week I was on the Parenting Panel at Canada AM chatting about how to discuss death and dying with kids. There is no question, this topic is a tough one for parents. It’s loaded with potentially complicated conversations around faith, spirituality, after-life, and a whole host of other tricky topics.

My young nephew recently said “If we all die, what’s the point of living in the first place?” Yeah, glad it wasn’t me who had to field that one!

My own kids had to deal with the death of both grandfathers within two weeks of each other. Never easy, but there are ways to help get through these difficult times. These are three things that I’ve learned about this topic in my years as a mama.

  1. Don’t replace the fish. A pet provides a wonderful opportunity for children to experience grief for the first time. Don’t try to protect your children from this experience – it will serve them well to get the practice in with a fish. It sure beats the first experience being with a dear loved one. So, fight the urge to run to the pet store and buy a look-a-like fish for your children. You’re not doing them any favours.
  2. Have a funeral dress rehearsal. When I say dress rehearsal, I mean have a dry run at a funeral with someone they may not be close to, perhaps the relative of a neighbour or a friend’s grandparent. I have taken all of my young children to the funeral of someone a little ‘removed’ from them so that their first experience was not too emotional. It introduced them to the ceremony of the funeral and what funeral etiquette and expectations are. They learn to sign the guest book, give condolences, deal with seeing emotional grown-ups, and even talk about the casket situation. I find it prepares them well for what might be a very difficult funeral next time.
  3. Don’t protect them. My teenage son lost a classmate last year. He was unsure about whether he wanted to go to the funeral. Because of his age, I wanted the decision to be his. It gave us the opportunity to discuss why he might want to go:

– He would be supported by his peers
– He would show his support to his friend’s family
– He would be a part of the celebration of his friend’s life
– This is a one shot deal. We don’t want to regret not going.

He decided to go to the funeral and was glad he did – even though it was a very difficult day.

At the end of the day, we need to approach the subject of death and losing a loved one like any other difficult topic – with honesty and in an age-appropriate manner. If kids ask questions, they are ready for the answers and we owe it to them to give them those answers.

Have you had to deal with this very difficult topic with your kids? What was your approach and how did they handle it?

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