Talking to your child about death

Death and dying are difficult issues for all of us, adults included. But shying away from talking to your child about mortality won't make death go away - and it could make it harder for him or her to deal with bereavement when it happens, whether it's the death of a pet or a person they care about.

It's pretty obvious that the closer a child is to the person or pet who is dying or has died, the bigger the blow it's going to be. Unsurprisingly, psychologists say it's death within the immediate family that has the biggest long-term implications for a child.

If you're unfortunate enough to be in that situation, you may want to seek out the support of a trained child bereavement counsellor - if only because you'll have your own issues to deal with, and it may be just too much for you to work out what your child needs on top of that.

But for the vast majority of families, death won't be quite so close to home. Most likely, the first death your child experiences will be that of an elderly relative - a grandparent, a great-aunt or uncle, a great-grandparent. Some Mumsnetters say they have seen these occasions - though very sad - as an opportunity to make children aware of death, of what it is, of how it's a natural part of life, and of how it will happen to everyone in the end.

Mumsnetters' book recommendations 

The best one we have is Michael Rosen's The Sad Book, which is wonderful and goes across all ages I think. zeno


A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is amazing. It's about a boy coming to terms with the imminent death of his mother. I had tears rolling down my cheeks - it's about goodbyes. daytoday


How to talk to your child about death

  • Resist the temptation to use euphemisms. It's best to avoid phrases like 'passed away', 'lost', 'gone to be with the angels', or, in the case of a pet, 'put to sleep. Saying the word 'dead' might seem harsh, but it makes things clear to a child - and that's important.
  • Prepare your children for the fact that elderly relatives won't live forever. It's not being disloyal to them for your kids to know that life is finite, and that as people get older the more likely they are to die.
  • Don't worry about crying in front of your child. Seeing you cry will help your child to understand what death is, and what grieving is. It's important for a child to see this - it gives them 'permission' to cry as well. And we all need to cry sometimes over death.


Should you take children to the funeral or the get-together afterwards?

When one Mumsnetter asked on the Talk boards whether she should take her children to the get-together after her grandmother's funeral, the response was an almost universal 'yes'. Not only do youngsters symbolise the continuation of the family, but they also help mourners to see that there's still joy in the world, and that life goes on.

By the time your child is a pre-teen, it's definitely worth asking whether they want to go to the funeral. Children, like adults, need to grieve; and a funeral is an important part of the grieving process. Don't automatically deny your child the chance to say goodbye at a funeral service.

The death of a family pet

The loss of a family pet is another first introduction to death for many children. Many Mumsnetters report their pre-teen being devastated by the death of a much-loved cat, dog or hamster; but time after time, they also say their children proved to be very resilient.

Children need time to be sad and time to grieve - but they will move on, sometimes more quickly than you'd expect, and more quickly than adults do.

What Mumsnetters say about talking to your child about mortality

  • Winston's Wish have great resources for kids about bereavement. You might want to get a memory box and put in it things that will remind your child of the person who's gone - photos, mementos etc so that you can look at them together and talk about the person. catsrus
  • We do children a disservice by keeping them away from death - especially normal, natural death from old age or illness. It doesn't traumatise them to see adults with a normal, natural level of upset. CrunchyFrog

 

Last updated: 11-Apr-2013 at 3:30 PM