Every human has two things in common. We all breath the same air and each and every one of us will meet death. Death is oftentimes a hard reality for us to face. Thinking about death seems morbid and harsh. It is uncomfortable and can be stressful or scary. Naturally, we want to believe that life should be marked by old age and death should only come after a person has lived a full and lengthy life. But the reality is, we don’t know our last day here on this earth.
Death can be a difficult concept for all of us to comprehend, especially for kids. When a loved one or friend dies we are left with a flood of emotions and questions. As parents and primary faith trainers, helping our kids process death and loss can be challenging but so important. Grieving and talking with our children about death provides an opportunity to care for their hearts as they process and heal. These conversations are essential in order to guide our children to a healthy understanding of death.
If you don’t feel equipped to have conversations about death, here are 8 tips to keep in mind as you talk with your kids about death. You will also find additional resources to guide your conversations at the bottom of this article.
1. Use direct language that is age appropriate.
As parents, sometimes we don’t know exactly what to say or we are fearful of introducing pain and sadness into our children’s lives. Our fears may cause us to be vague, dance around the subject or avoid communication about death altogether. We say things like “we lost grandma” or “Grandma is no longer with us.” This type of vague communication gives kids the impression that grandma can be found again and it can be confusing.
Using direct language helps your kids understand what is really going on, even if it is painful or scary at first. Hearing sad news from mom or dad opens the lines of communication and gives opportunity for questions or clarity. Some children are not ready for all the details, so keep it to the basics. Older children may ask more questions and seek further details. You know your kid’s intellect and capabilities, be sensitive to that, but be direct with your language about what happened.
Here are some phrases that may be helpful:
“I have some sad news about grandma, she died yesterday.”
“I have something sad to share with you. Grandpa died last night.”
If kids are asking about details that you may not be ready to share, simply say:
“We are not ready to share those details with you right now, but we will someday.” OR
“There are many details about _______’s death that we don’t understand right now. When we know more we will share them with you.”
Be as direct as you can, to ensure your kids have a full understanding that death is final, as painful as that may be.
2. Allow children to react in their own way.
We are all created uniquely by God which means we all experience life in our own unique way. Grieving looks different for each person. After the death of a loved one, you may see behavior changes in your children that are unexpected. Never get upset if they do not respond how you think they should. Be patient with them, especially if this is the first time they have experienced death of a loved one. If they need space, give them space. If they want to talk let them talk.
There may be a window of time where you allow your children to say and do things that in ordinary circumstances they wouldn’t be able to do in your home. Find a balance of grace and gentle guidance, knowing your children are trying to process the best they can. Let them know it is okay to feel sad, mad, confused or hurt. If your child has trouble saying how they feel, encourage them to draw pictures or write down memories about a loved one. Print off photos of that loved one and place copies in your child’s room or in a part of the house where it can be seen regularly.
For further insight into the natural stages of grief that we all experience, download the 5 Stages of Grief (Kubler-Ross Model) below. Through we all respond and react unique, it is helpful to understand the natural stages that we all experience.
3. Be prepared for other struggles to surface.
In highly emotional situations, it is normal for children and students to open up about everything that is going on in their life. They may share about things happening at school or with their friends or past experiences that were painful. This might be overwhelming but it can be powerfully therapeutic for them to process, even seemingly small things. Do your best not to make something out of nothing but if they are willing to open up, remain calm and present. Listen and seek understanding before you react or respond. (10 sec principle) Your child may just need to sort through all the chaotic thoughts and feelings.
4. Parents show emotions too.
There are times as parents when we need to be strong for our kids, but being vulnerable about our own processing can also be very powerful. Last year, I did a funeral for my grandfather and during the service I cried during many parts. Afterwards, my son told me that it was the first time he has ever seen me cry. I assured him that crying and expressing sad feelings is more than okay in our family. I realized by not showing my emotions, I had been telling him that men don’t cry in our family. One of the best ways to show your kids authentic grief is to sit and cry with them when they are hurting. What a reflection of Jesus to them and how we as parents share in their pain and love them well. Even Jesus wept at the loss of Lazurus, his dear friend. Be honest about your own feelings and struggles.
5. Talk about the Gospel and Heaven.
As Christians, we know that death has been defeated. Jesus crushed the grave. Because of that, those of us who believe in Jesus will receive eternal life with Him in Heaven. When we talk to our kids about death, we must remember to talk about the hope of heaven. The hope of the gospel is that Jesus died so that we can have life here on earth and when we die, we get to spend eternity in heaven. Heaven is a place where there is no longer any hurting, or sickness or pain.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Revelation 21:4
Point your kids to heaven, let them ask questions about heaven and if you don’t have an answer, don’t lie to them, tell them you don’t know. My kids have been asking what type of candy is in heaven and I’m not sure there is candy in heaven, but were talking about it, and my kids are processing.
Heaven is our hope. Don’t miss the discipleship opportunity in the middle of loss.
6. Keep pointing back to what is true.
We can find comfort in many things during the death of a loved one but we must be persistent on keeping our comfort grounded in truth. God is our great comforter (John 15:26). He comforts us in truth because he is truth. At times our kids may elaborate the facts of the situation because of all the emotions they are experiencing. Do your best to not shame them, but keep going back to what is true. The enemy may us lies to try and chip away at their faith and we must keep pointing back to what is true.
A few months after our grandmother passed away my daughter asked, “Will I really see grandma again one day?” In her mind, she was worried that mom and dad were not telling the truth. We assured her with God’s word and with our confidence that we were telling the truth. As parents, we must pray against the enemy’s attacks on our family because he will try and leverage this sensitive time to cause damage, keep praying for God to show himself every day.
7. Remember who we put our trust in.
A phrase that we use in our house is, “Who do we trust?” If we don’t understand all the details or the reason why someone died…who do we trust? The same God we trust in our day-to-day living is the same God we trust when we experience grief, loss and death.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
Regardless of circumstances surrounding a death, we must remind ourselves and our children who is worthy of our trust, God! Remember his faithfulness in our lives. Talk about where we see God working, even in the midst of painful circumstances.
On the good days and the bad, we trust the God of the universe that is in control.
8. Continue the Conversation
Conversations about death and loss are not a one-time interaction. Kids are naturally curious and as they process they will often have many questions. Their curiosity could go on for days, weeks or months. Invite your children to ask as many questions as they need to. Encourage your children to come to you anytime with questions they may have. You may feel unequipped to handle some of the things they are experiencing, it’s okay to ask for help. Be open to allowing others to help. Reach out to your church staff, school or friends for recommendations when you feel overwhelmed. Don’t be afraid to seek a licensed counselor for professional counseling for you or your child.
Finding ways to keep the conversation going within your family doesn’t have to be awkward it can be very natural. Later down the road when you experience things with your kids that remind you of your loved one, make it a point to ask questions like: What do you think _____ would say? What do you think ____ is doing in heaven right now? Don’t shy away from it, lean into it. Develop some new traditions that honor your loved one. Every time I play golf, I mark my ball the same way my dad did as a reminder. At Christmas, our family now drinks root beer with dinner because grandpa loved root beer and it reminds us of him!
Check out more resources below to help you start and have conversations about death and grief.