Our world is being faced with fatal conflicts, natural disasters, epidemics, mass shootings and an increasing number of suicides. In addition, many local families deal with their own personal tragedies. In the state of Nevada, 1 in every 12 children will have a parent or sibling die before they turn 18 (CBEM, National Report, 2023). Many caregivers wonder: What do I say to a young child about the death of a loved one, friend, or even someone in the media?
Children are very perceptive when something is amiss, and adults should never underestimate a child’s ability to feel, think or grieve. Children know when something is wrong, but they often don’t know what is wrong. One of the greatest gifts caregivers can give a young child in a time of crisis, and loss is to be a direct source of information.
Below are some things to think about when having these tough conversations with young children:
- Plan for a location in which the child feels comfortable.
- Begin teaching children about death long before it happens.
- Use nature as a guide - start with the seasons of a tree or an animal. This is a good time to familiarize children with the concepts of life and living as well as death and dying.
- Help children understand the difference between death that happens in real life versus a fictional death that happens on TV or in video games.
- Answer a question your child might have openly and honestly, as well as age appropriately. The scientific approach is, “When someone dies, their heart, brain and lungs stop working. They can no longer feel, see or hear. They are no longer in pain.” Frame your responses around your personal responses to these three questions: What is our family belief system? How am I dealing with my unprocessed grief? Where is my child or children cognitively?
- Encourage children to talk about their feelings and fears. Let them know it’s okay to cry, show emotions, feel sad or be angry. Children deserve the right to grieve the person who died. If they are old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve.
- Listen, and then listen some more. Even though it might be uncomfortable, do your best. It’s okay to show your emotions too!
- Talk about ways to remember funny times, good times, etc. Become a model of sharing, showing emotions and truth telling.
The most important thing to remember: Be simple and be honest.
Death and grief are a part of life. Through simple actions, children can learn to grieve and understand the process of death and dying. The act of grieving and mourning will help them live with loss and death that will serve them throughout their lives. Be the first to have this conversation. As Mr. Rogers said, “What’s mentionable is manageable, and what is manageable is mentionable. Children will talk about anything as long as they know the adult in their life is listening and present.”
What is Child Grief Awareness Day?
In honor of the grieving child and teen, there is a day to acknowledge that children do grieve, and we must be mindful of our language, presence, and words when delivering bad news and supporting them. This day is called Child Grief Awareness Day – the Thursday before Thanksgiving. This year, it is Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. This day provides an opportunity for all of us to raise awareness of the painful impact that the death of a loved one has on the life of a child.
About the professors.
Professor Emilio Parga is a pediatric thanatologist and the founder of The Solace Tree, a local non-profit organization that provides grief support to children, teens and adults coping with loss. Professor Jenna Dewar is a faculty member in the Human Development, Family Science and Counseling department with a background in early childhood education.