Talking about death with a child isn’t easy, but local child development professionals say delaying the conversation might do more harm than good.
“It’s not an easy topic to approach,” said Stacy Neblett, child life specialist with Covenant Children’s Hospital. “Like you said, a lot of parents don’t expect to have to talk to children about this topic, especially when it’s related to the death of a parent when a child is still very young, especially if it’s the death of a sibling.”
Neblett said she always tells parents they can’t be forced to explain to their kids, but honestly is the best practice.
Kelly Martin, MEd, LPC, RPT, owner of The Playroom Lubbock, said keeping an open and honest dialogue with a child can help provide a healthy outlet as they learn to process mortality.
And with more frequent mass killings — such as the recent church shootings at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church — plaguing the news, Martin said parents should not be put off if kids start asking questions about what they hear and see.
“Parents need to be mindful that kids may hear about crisis events from other kids at school, overhearing the news on the TV/radio, overhearing adults talking,” Martin said. “This might bring up some questions for kids.”
If or when the child starts asking questions about death, parents and caregivers should answer with age-appropriate facts and use concrete words like “death,” “dying” or “dead,” said Sarah Simmons, child life specialist with University Medical Center.
Phrases like “passed away,” “better place” or “sleeping” should be not be used to avoid confusion and fear, she said.
“We as adults say that and that’s OK to say that,” Simmons said. “But for children, it can cause a lot of issues that they don’t understand. For younger kids, if they’re told ‘so and so has passed away,’ they might say ‘when are they coming back?’ That causes even more conversation that’s difficult.”
Kids are intuitive, said Kayla Ware, child life specialist with UMC. They sense when something isn’t right.
The situations she sees in the hospital are often trauma-related and kids often already know their loved one isn’t doing well, she said.
“They just need someone to validate that ‘yes, that person did die,’ or ‘that person is very hurt,’” Ware said. “It’s important to be open and honest with them,”
Simmons said even if a child is told someone died, whether it’s someone close or someone of no relation, they may need help understanding the finality of what that means.
Activities like writing, drawing, music or something like screaming can help a child as they process death, Martin said.
It’s not unusual, Martin said, for a child to simply say “OK” and carry on with whatever they were doing in the moment they’re informed of a death, then ask questions later.
“The best way is to keep an open dialogue with them and allow them to ask questions and listen to them,” Martin said. “Allow them to express their emotions and communicate with them that any of their feelings are OK to have. They need to have an expressive way to process what has happened.”
Questions may continue for a long time after the initial event, she said.
“It’s (grief) almost like a lifelong process,” Martin said. “As a child matures, they begin to think about events of the past in a different way.”