How to Explain Death to a Child

One of the hardest realities to explain to a child is death. Especially when it is the death of a parent, sibling, beloved grandparent, close friend or even a favorite pet.  As a parent, you try to protect your child from things that might harm them or from things that are too difficult to understand for their age but unfortunately sometimes this is not possible.  When you are faced with the reality that you need to have a conversation with your child about death, keep the following ideas in mind.

Don’t lie.  Whatever you do say, make sure that you are completely honest with your child.  Telling them that a person went to sleep for a long time does not help them and can confuse them later when they do find out the truth.  Don’t say anything that would cause your relationship with your child to be in jeopardy later because of a lie, even if it is just a little white lie.

Keep it simple.  Long winded explanations may make you feel better but a child will only hear the first couple of sentences.  Remember the teacher on Charlie Brown and how the kids just tuned her out?  You don’t want your child to turn you out during a difficult conversation so be clear and simple when you start.

Answer only the question they ask.  As a parent, you may be tempted to reinterpret your child’s question or answer more than they ask.  Resist the urge and instead repeat the question they ask for clarity by saying, “You want to know…” followed by their question.  If they say yes, then answer it simply; if they say no than ask them to ask a different question.

Don’t expect an emotional response.  Children need more time than adults to process what has happened because this is a new experience for them.  So if your child seems unemotional at first, don’t worry, just give them time to process what has happened.  Your child may also have inappropriate emotional responses such as laughing instead of crying; allow them the freedom to respond as they know how.  They may be laughing because that is the only way they know of releasing the stress and tension they feel.

Explain as often as requested.  You may find that your child comes back to you several hours or days later with the exact same set of questions they asked at first.  They are doing this to process what has happened and refusing to answer a question because you have already answered it is not helpful.  Rather, be consistent with your responses and answer the same question in the same manner.  Again resist the temptation to over explain, they are not asking the same question because they need more clarity, they are just trying to understand.

Invite them to ask more questions in the future.  As your child ages and has more experience to draw from, they may have additional harder questions later.  While they may have seemed like they are processing the grief well shortly after the death, problems may surface several years later as they learn more about life.  Look out for disruptive behavior at school, defiant behavior at home, or destructive behavior with friends as warning signs that your child may have more grief to process.

Get help not only for your child but for you as well.  Grief of close family members can take well over a year to process for adults.  For children, they seem to postpone aspects of their grief for later and sometimes it is not fully processed until they are adults.  As a parent, you need to get help so that you can better help your child first by example and next by experience.  Your child will be far more likely to ask for help in a productive rather than destructive manner if they have witnessed you asking for help.  The idea of being strong for your child and not getting help may be counterproductive for your child who may feel weak compared to you.

It is a tough to have a conversation with your child about death.  Before you begin, think about the right words to say then review the above suggestions rehearsing answers to some of the anticipated questions.  But if your child is resistant to the conversation, don’t force it on your time-table but rather be patient and sensitive to their time-table.  This will go a long way in strengthening your relationship with your child.

Repairing, restoring, and rebuilding relationships takes time, energy and effort.  If you find yourself needing more help during this process, please call our offices at 407-647-7005 to schedule an appointment.  Or you can send me a quick email at chammond@lifeworksgroup.org.

Embracing Grief When You Have Lost a Loved One

Out of the blue, you receive a message that someone you loved has passed away.  Perhaps it is a sibling, a longtime friend, or close co-worker, he/she is close to you but not one of your immediate family.  Whatever the nature of your relationship, the timing of their death is so unexpected that you can hardly believe what you are hearing.  And yet you know intellectually that it is true.  Your emotions do not catch up to the reality quick enough so your response is distorted by a numbness of disbelief.  You are left hanging, not knowing what to do or how to respond.  Your relationship with the immediate family is close so you feel this pull to be with them but are unsure of how to act, what to say or who to speak with during this time.

The climate of our present culture is one that has lost touch with the art of maintaining intimate relationships. Media influences such as Facebook, texting, and video gaming all of which do more to disconnect relationships rather connect serve instead to keep intimate relationships at arm’s length.  While on the surface it may seem as though we are connecting to old friends or distant relatives by befriending or sending a message, the lack of two-way face-to-face conversation keeps the relationship at this distance.  During the times of a crisis such as the loss of a loved one, the distance then becomes a temptation not to act and to remain safely away.  But this is not an example of loving your neighbor.  So what is?

Time.  As hard as it is, one of the most loving acts of kindness is giving your time.  Just spending time with the immediate family can be a source of great comfort in a time of great loss.  One of the many temptations during this time however is to remain detached and self-protective as you embrace your own loss, but that is a selfish act.  Selflessness is the willingness to put aside your own emotions and become involved in caring for those whose loss is even greater.  Time demands that you are physically present offering to remain as long as needed to care for the suffering of another.

Listen.  During your time with the immediate family, do not enforce your own agenda or your own views of the loved one who has passed.  Rather, listen to the family speak allowing them the freedom to become angry, bitter, sad, and emotional.  Don’t argue or dispute what they are saying, just allow them to ramble.  The explosion of thoughts which plague your mind during this time are even more intense for the immediate family so let them just speak.  Some feel the need to narrate the story of their lives, some feel the need to just sit in complete quiet, some feel the need to be around people, and some feel the need to give instructions.  Whatever their need, be there to listen without judgment or correction.

Embrace.  There is no way around this.  Once you physically make yourself available and spend some time listening to a person grieve, you will become emotionally and intimately involved in the grieving process.  This act defies the nature of our culture which preaches that it is “all about me” and invites you to embrace an intimate moment which is about the one who has passed away and the ones who are left behind.  While it is scary to allow yourself to be so involved, it is an act of kindness that demonstrates fully the love of Christ.

To the outside world, such behavior of giving your time, listening unconditionally and embracing grief sounds draining and normally it is if you are doing such acts on your own strength.  But if you rely on the strength of Christ, there is far more than you need.  John 7:38, “Anyone who believes in me [Jesus] may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”  These rivers of living water are nourishment and refreshment in times of great challenge and great need which are available to all who believe in Jesus.  When you give of yourself during a time of loss, you are really giving the love of Christ of which there is an endless supply and far more than you need.  This is one of the many demonstrations of loving your neighbor which becomes a light to all who see.

For more information, watch this video. 

Repairing, restoring, and rebuilding relationships takes time, energy and effort.  If you find yourself needing more help during this process, please call our offices at 407-647-7005 to schedule an appointment.  Or you can send me a quick email at chammond@lifeworksgroup.org.