How to Explain the Loss of a Loved One to a Child

How to Explain the Loss of a Loved One to a Child

The loss of a loved one is without a doubt one of the most emotionally challenging experiences we can undergo in life. No matter our age or years of experience, all of us can find ourselves devastated by the loss of someone we love. While we as adults have already been subject to life’s disappointments, ups and downs and unexpected life changes, children on the other hand, most likely have yet to have been exposed to death or grief in their lives. Therefore, it can be rather difficult and overwhelming to be faced with delivering news of such a nature to children. For a child, it can be quite terrifying to be confronted with information of this magnitude. And it can be just as scary as an adult to be the messenger of news like this – especially to a child whose entire life’s view and perspective is about to be shattered and forever changed.

As parents, grandparents, or guardians, we can sometimes find ourselves in a position in which we need to be able to communicate to our children about life’s tougher and darker predicaments and situations. As you prepare to deliver difficult news of the loss of a loved one to a child, we wanted to offer you helpful tips and recommendations to help you establish a healthy foundation from which your little one can develop an awareness and understanding of death and life changes that will help you both cope, adapt and adjust through the grief process.

Explaining Death to a Child

Here are a few recommendations and guidelines to keep in mind when trying to explain the concept of death and the loss of a loved one to a child. 

Take their Age and Developmental Level into Consideration

As the concept of death is complex and abstract, and can therefore be hard for a child to grasp or make sense of, it is important to understand that at different ages, children have the capacity for different levels of comprehension. For instance, while preschoolers can see life in a magical way and may attempt to use their imagination to explain death, by middle school age kids are able to develop more of a solid understanding of death. Thus, try to structure how you deliver the news to a child in a way that will cater to their age and development level. 

Avoid Describing Unnecessary Details 

Again, as death is not an easy concept to grasp or understand, especially for a child, it is important to be cautious and delicate with how you approach the subject. We recommend that you don’t delve too deeply into the details of how your loved one passed away, as it may cause a child unnecessary trauma. Remember, they are first just becoming familiar with the concept of death at all, let alone having to confront all details of what ensued and their new reality. Try to keep your explanation and any  answers to their questions as simple as possible to enable your child to more easily and comfortably acquire an understanding of the situation at hand. 

Monitor Your Level of Emotion as You Deliver the News 

As challenging as it can be to remain level and calm after experiencing a heartrending situation of losing a loved one, it is important to not allow your emotions to get the best of you as you attempt to communicate about the concept of death to a child. It’s not a good idea to talk to your little one about death while you’re crying hysterically or lack the mental clarity to fluidly convey information of such a difficult nature. Keep in mind that your level of emotion and body language can significantly impact a child’s perspective and understanding of what ensued, as well as influence how well they are ultimately able to adapt to the news. Therefore, try your best to communicate about the loss to your child once you have calmed down and are able to better process the news, yourself. 

Create a Safe and Comforting Space

The environment in which you deliver difficult news to a child can affect how well a child is able to handle the information. It’s very important that your child feels comfortable and empowered in the space to allow themselves to be fully present and able to openly share their emotions with you. Encourage your child to let out their feelings and help them understand that they are allowed to express their emotions, and however they feel in the moment is acceptable. You can encourage this by also communicating about your emotions and letting your child know how you feel. By setting the example that it’s ok to demonstrate your feelings, your child has an opportunity to better comprehend what he or she is also feeling and experiencing.

It is also recommended to use a familiar and comfortable environment in which to confide in your child. While it is best to avoid a room with many disruptive distractions such as technological devices which can make it more difficult to get a child’s undivided attention, it is a good idea to use children’s play things and toys as they can serve a therapeutic purpose and be of comfort to them in an emotionally charged situation. 

Provide Reassuring And Comforting Responses. 

You can expect your child to ask questions while you try to explain to them about the concept of death and the loss of a loved one. Try your best to not ignore these questions and avoid offering vague answers. Try to offer honest answers in a comforting and simple way, instead. When presented with a topic of this magnitude, the last thing your child wants to hear is “that’s just how it is” or “now, it’s time to grow up and tough it out.” They’re likely to appreciate solid, yet compassionate and understanding answers that won’t leave them feeling hanging, confused or pressured into a new role that they feel they must now assume.

Take Time to Be There for Your Child.

As your little one’s worldview is disrupted and changed by the loss of someone they held close to their heart, you will want to try to offer them the time and space to help them better grasp the difficult news, as well as to process and adjust to the situation. Understand that they may need some time to take in the information, and as you can’t predict how your child will react, it’s best to allow them whatever time they need to listen and cope with the news. Perhaps, consider taking them to the park after, go out for some ice cream, or watch an enjoyable TV show together. Remember, the most important thing is to be simply present to provide them some much-needed comfort and support.

Talk to Your Child About the Events that Come After Someone Passes Away. 

It’s important to communicate to our little ones about the rituals and traditions that usually come along after someone passes away, such as funeral and memorialization services so they know what to expect. If your child has never been to a funeral, take some time to explain what it involves so they can have a better understanding of the events to come.

Be Ok With Saying “I Don’t Know.” 

Death is a very complex topic that we certainly don’t have all of the answers to. As your child gets older, he or she will also learn as well all eventually do, how to accept the unknowns of death and the universe. However, at this time as you are trying to explain the concept of death to your little one, you of course don’t have all the answers so understand that you are not expected to be able to offer specific answers. It is perfectly acceptable to be honest with your child and simply say, “I don’t know.” While you may not have answers, your love and support is an absolute they your little one can rely on in this troubled time. 

Let Your Child Process Things in His or Her Own Way. 

Remember, you can’t predict how your child is going to react to the news. You’ll want to be prepared to accept whatever their reaction is, how they feel in the moment and how they behave. Both of you will be going through a grieving process and it is important to give both of yourselves grace and patience during this time, and the space to react and behave in whatever way feels natural or appropriate. Be a comforting, loving and compassionate presence and focus on fostering healthy communication with your loved one that helps your child feel more secure to let out their thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. And let your child know that there is no one or right way to think, feel or behave when it comes to an emotionally difficult situation like this. 

We All Experience Grief Differently

We hope this guide lends a helping hand as well as offers you some peace and reassurance during a difficult time like this. Remember that grief is a very unique and complex process, and some kids might need long-term support to be able to cope with their feelings. Ultimately, how your child takes to learning news of this nature will depend on many factors including how close they were to the deceased, as well as the support and environment around them. 

Unfortunately, death is an inevitability of life, and at some point you will need to teach your children about the realities of life and death. By approaching the situation in a patient, loving and compassionate way, you can provide comfort to your child during an emotionally challenging situation and better help them understand and accept the concept of death and the loss of a loved one.

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