Johnny was 6 years old and sitting on my couch ready to talk about grandpa–who had just died. In fact, the funeral had been a week before and a lot of people attended. I ask Johnny if he attended, he said, “Sure, I wanted to see grandpa one last time”. I said, “so, where was grandpa? He replied, “at the funeral home”. I quickly ask, “Did you go into the room where he was”. He said, “Yes”. ” So”, I replied,” that is where you saw him”? His response was emphatic, “NO”. I was confused, so I ask him again, “You went to the funeral where your grandfather was—thinking you would see him—but, you didn’t, is that right”? He said, “Everybody said he was there, but I did not see him. I looked everywhere in that room. There were lots of people and flowers, but no grandpa”. Then it “hit” me, Grandpa was in a casket on top of a bier (probably 4 feet off the ground), if no one lifted Johnny up to see him—then Johnny did not know grandpa was there. He never saw him, and couldn’t without help.
This is how it goes with children when someone they love dies—they need a lot of help in many areas. Below I have listed ten things every adult should consider when talking with a child about the death of someone they love:
1. Tell the child as soon as possible about the death, and start with what the child already knows
2. Be Truthful. Children can sense dishonesty.
3. Share only the details the child is ready to hear. Children will process and re-process the death of a loved one at every developmental level. So, chances are, all the facts will eventually come out.
4. Encourage the child to express feelings–you may have to give permission to talk and then be quiet.
5. Take the child to the funeral and explain as much as you can—let them see the body.
6. Take the child to the cemetery. Do it every time you go. It should give them comfort.
7. Let the child tell others about the death–don’t interrupt them.
8. Encourage the child to talk about the death and tell the story of the loved one’s life. Drawing pictures is helpful too.
9. Be available to answer questions about the death. TAKE THE TIME TO BE A COMPANION IN THEIR GRIEF.
10. NEVER SAY–“You shouldn’t feel that way”. It is classic repression. Any feeling the child expresses is normal, just understand the feelings will change, and especially if the child senses something different in the adult than what they are feeling.
Updated: April 15, 2013