Raising Healthy KidsTalk to Children About Death

This week I want to reflect about a topic that is never something we want to face but something that unfortunately we all have to deal with at some point in our kid’s lives. Loss. Grief. Death. In childhood, kids are likely to endure the loss of a grandparent or another loved one. Here are some thoughts on how to deal with this through the lens of one family’s experience.

How do I talk to my kid about death?

Zoe and her mother Camille came in one day with low energy and sad looks on their faces. They shared with me that just yesterday Zoe’s grandmother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and they didn’t expect her to live past a few months. Zoe, who was 12 at the time, wanted to talk about what happens after someone dies. Essentially she wanted to know if her grandmother was going to be alright.

This was an especially difficult session because this was Camille’s mother. She shared that while she didn’t feel prepared to deal with this herself she felt the pressure to be wise and strong for her kids. She wished that she could just break down and curl up in her bed in the dark but she had children at home, a career, and a house to run. I could feel the importance of this conversation, and I wanted to take some of that burden off of Camille’s plate so she could have time to process her own feelings. So I began… 

We went over the fact that they were in one way fortunate to have the time to say goodbye and be thoughtful about how to do that. This strategy was to shift the mindset toward gratitude and they could see the gift in that. Then, we planned out what was important to say and do together in the time they had left. While they did this through tears, they shared things that they wanted to do like get recipes, take professional pictures and have them framed, and take a road trip. Whether they could do this all was not the point, it was the small sense of control that was regained that helped in what felt like a powerless situation.

Next, we discussed what their spiritual and religious beliefs were. This was uncomfortable for Camille as she had not raised her kids grounded in any one belief except that she and her spouse believed that there was something greater than them that existed. Zoe wanted to discuss Heaven, God, the afterlife, soul traveling, and reincarnation. She also wanted to know if she would ever be reunited with her grandmother. Camille was uneasy and unsure about how to answer those questions so I asked Zoe to get in touch with what her intuition about what happens after death. I find that when people are nervous they tend to nervously talk a lot so instead, I just asked her what she thought, it quickly took the pressure off Camille.

To her mom’s surprise, Zoe had her own thoughts and opinions about the afterlife and seemed to get comfort in those beliefs. In the following sessions we continued to process what was happening keeping the conversation open and fluid. This proved to be very helpful for Zoe as she reported that at home it was sad and stressful and she didn’t talk as openly about her feelings because everyone had their own feelings.

Not every child will be in therapy or even needs therapy because of a loss but having someone they can speak to is particularly important. I suggest to parents that no matter what the age of your child you should talk about your beliefs and show emotion when it arises. Many parents want to be strong and hide their grief but kids are really tuned into their parents during these difficult times so modeling grief for them is a good thing (as hard as that is). And once the person has passed on, keeping their memory and spirit alive is also important. There are so many children that I work with that share that “no one talks about the loved one anymore…” Just know that by keeping pictures up, telling stories and remembering them you are teaching your child that the love and memories don’t die with their loved one and that is more comforting than scary.

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