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Video: How to talk with young children about death

As part of my work with SWParents.org, we produced a video for parents on how to talk to your kids about death.  I also share a few basic tips for understanding and responding to the various ways that children can express grief.  Please take a look if you think this topic might be helpful to you or a loved one.  Non-members can watch up to 10 videos or read 10 articles per month for free.  The link below will take you directly to the video.

See the video here.

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Children and Funerals

A few basic suggestions for helping your child with death and funerals.

  • You are the best person to talk with your child about what has happened.  You don’t need a professional to break bad news–your child would rather hear it from his parents.  (although YOU might feel better if YOU talk to someone first–practicing what you’re going to say is a great idea.)
  • Don’t hide the truth, and don’t delay too long before telling your child pertinent details.  
  • Regarding funerals, there are a lot of good reasons to allow your child to attend the funeral, including:
      • Funerals are a ritual for closure and healing.  Kids need this as much as adults do!
      • Funerals honor the deceased.  If your child was close enough to the deceased to attend the funeral, it will likely do them good to hear people speaking with love, honor and respect about their life.  
      • Funerals are gatherings of friends and family.  Kids are a part of this group.
      • The presence of children at a funeral generally serves to remind us of the circle of life, can add some breathing room to the grief–or even occasionally levity–and that’s a healthy balance.
      • At funerals, adults generally feel as though they have permission to express their feelings of loss.  It’s healthy for your child to witness this–it’s good role modeling–we want our kids to express their feelings, too.
      • I encourage you to ask your child if they want to go, and let that be your primary deciding factor.  
  • A child attending a funeral needs a supportive adult nearby to answer questions, hold their hand, give them a hug, etc.  A younger child attending a funeral needs an adult who can take them out of the room to run around if they need that break.
  • The person who is supporting the child needs to be someone who isn’t themselves completely grief-stricken by the loss. 
  • If you yourself are deeply mourning, seek out support for yourself during this time of double-difficulty (your grief leaves you with fewer resources than normal, at a time when your children’s needs are greater than normal.) 
  • Open caskets can sometimes be an uncomfortable or strange experience for children. Again, an older child can tell you whether they want to look.  Whatever their choice, support them and be prepared for questions.
  • Familiarize yourself with the grief process, and remember to offer support to your child for longer than you think is probably necessary.

If you’d like to read more about children & funerals, visit this short article written by a Massachusetts psychologist.

Recommended Books about Death or Grief & Loss

Always & Forever, by Alan Durant, is reviewed in detail here. It is one of my favorite books about grief for kids. Highly recommended.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn isn’t about grief or loss, but it is a book about how hard it is to separate or say goodbye. That’s certainly a related theme when we are talking about grief with children. The main character is a raccoon who is about to start school. He’s sad and worried about leaving his mother–who teaches him a sweet, nurturing trick for self-soothing. I’ve known families that adopted the trick for themselves after reading the book. Very sweet.

The Bug Cemetery, by Frances Hill is about a group of entrepreneurial kids who stumble upon the ‘business’ of funerals.  The brother and sister pair offer “bug funerals,” complete with fake mourners, eulogies, and tombstones  for 10 cents.  But, when their friend’s pet cat is killed, they realize that “Funerals aren’t any fun when they’re for someone you love.”  The illustrator does a great job of conveying sadness, even anguish, in the children’s faces during the real funeral.

I like that this book illustrates that we can pretend to have a feeling, but that it isn’t the same as the real feeling at all.  Very young children often “pretend” to mourn a relative who died before they were born–and that’s normal–but I like having a tool to show the difference.  I also like the way the book shows kids ways that they can cope with death and loss–the children in the book honor their feelings and also honor the dead.

When Dinosaurs Die, by Laura Krasny Brown, is similar to their many other “When Dinosaurs…” books.  It is an informative, non-fiction book on a difficult topic, somewhat cartoonish in style, that explains facts & feelings to kids, and answers their typical questions.  The lack of a narrative makes it a little less interesting to children as a bedtime story, but perhaps makes it an even better choice for an older child who can read and would benefit from having a source of information under his control.

Of course there are many more, but consider this a beginning list.  Please make suggestions about other books to include in this list in the comments section.