Talking with Children about Tragic Death
Sudden, tragic loss such as death due to homicide, suicide, or accident presents a difficult situation for caregivers. Adults are often tempted to protect children from the harsh reality of tragic death. In the wake of horrific loss, however, there exists an opportunity to teach our children about feeling expression and effective coping.
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
- Choose the best time and place to talk to your child. Choose an environment in which your child feels comfortable, a space that is conducive to conversation, and a time when you can devote your undivided attention to your child. Gently invite conversation by asking “is there anything you learned at school today that is scary or confusing?”
- Be honest about the death, using simple language that is easily understood.
- Offer reassurance. Violent death can lead children to fear that something similar might happen to them. Children need to hear from trusted adults that most people behave responsibly and do not hurt others, no matter how angry they feel. You might say, for example, “The man who killed that boy made a bad choice to use violence to hurt others. In our family, we know that it is always best to talk about our feelings and we never use violence to hurt others.”
- Focus on what the child needs to know. A good rule of thumb is to always consider whether you are giving more information than the child wants or needs to hear. Be general.
- If your child asks you a question for which you have no answer, it is perfectly acceptable to say “That is a good question. Let me think about it we’ll talk about it again later today” or “I don’t know how to answer that question but I will ask an expert to help me and I will tell you what I learn.”
- Give information in small amounts over time and allow the child to process what they have been told.
- Encourage your child to express his/her feelings and be open to accepting whatever your child wishes to express. Accept and talk about what you are feeling and your child will be encouraged, by your example, to do the same. Model feeling expression for your child by sharing that this loss is difficult for adults to understand too.
- Let your child know that it is ok to talk about the death. The subject of loss should be as open as possible, not something that is hidden or not discussed. Let your child know that you are available to answer questions and to hear any expression of loss.
- Allow the child to express memories, recollections, and stories of the person who died.
- Provide your child with examples of the ways in which you cope with difficult feelings (journaling, spending time with friends, exercising, etc…) Invite your child to join you as you engage in a healthy coping activity.
- The four most important concepts adults should remember when helping children understand about and cope with death are:
- 1. Be truthful
- 2. Be loving
- 3. Be accepting
- 4. Be consistent
Kids Path counseling and education services are available to any child or teen coping with the illness or death of a loved one. We provide individual and group support as well as educational experiences for children aged 4-20 and their caregivers. We are also available to consult with community and school personnel in an effort to provide quality grief support for bereaved children.
For more resources on grief and talking to children about grief, view our Kids Path Resource Library. To learn more about our services, contact Kids Path at (336)544-5437.