Forget about the birds and the bees. The talk that most parents dread having with their small children is the one about death. It’s an uncomfortable subject that many people don’t want to deal with, much less try to talk to a child about. I mean, how do you really explain death to a toddler? It’s a subject that none of us truly understands in the first place.
At some point, though, you’re going to have to have this particular discussion. Whether it’s a grandparent, a family friend, an aunt or an uncle who suddenly passes away (or a beloved pet pooch), it’s kind of an inevitable occurance. So why is it such a cringe-worthy convo? Well, because when you do explain death in real terms, it’s going to get your child thinking. And when she gets thinking, she's going to start asking questions. The first question she’ll probably ask is, “Mommy, does that mean you’re going to die?” (Cue the heart palpitations.) And then, it’s most likely going to be followed up with the one question NO parent wants to answer: “Mommy, does that mean I’m going to die?” (Cue the full-on anxiety attack.)
When my two older children asked me this question years ago, I did what any self-respecting mama bear would do. I flat-out lied. “No, sweetie, you’re neverrrr going to die.” And no, that’s not a typo. I stretched out the word “never” for like a full five seconds. But I probably shouldn’t have fibbed, according to Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Dealing with the loss of a close loved one is traumatic and a uniquely individual experience for children as well as adults,” says Dr. Walfish. “It should be done honestly and openly.” So without using me as any sort of guideline, here are some expert tips for when you have to explain death to a toddler.
1. Deal With It Right Away
While it might take some time for you to process what’s happened, you should make sure to speak with your child soon after the person’s passing, advised Psychology Today. It allows your child to understand why you’ve been upset or crying, and realize that it’s okay to be emotional after losing someone you love.
2. Explain What Actually Happens
Depending on the age of your child, you can try to explain what death actually is. “When a person dies, their body stops breathing and they no longer can feel pain,” says Dr. Walfish. “Nothing hurts them in their bodies or feelings anymore.” This can be an important point to bring up, especially if your child saw their loved one suffering from a long illness or from a tragic accident.
3. Share Your Spiritual Beliefs
If your family is religious or spiritual, you can absolutely incorporate your viewpoint into your discussion. “You can add your personal, spiritual and/or religious beliefs about where the soul goes after death,” says Dr. Walfish. Make sure to comfort your child by saying the memory of the deceased remains alive in our minds and hearts because your family loved that person so much.
4. Watch Your Words
Just the words “dying”, “dead” or “died” can be uncomfortable to say. But it’s critical that you use the right language when describing death. “Don’t say the word ‘sick’” says Dr. Walfish. “We all get sick, and your child may worry that when he gets sick with a cold or sore throat that he might die.” Explain to him, in terms that he can understand, what led up to the death (i.e. an illness, disease, or a tragic mishap). But be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again; Kids Health reported that children often need ongoing emotional support following a death, and hearing the same answers provides comfort and reassurance.
5. Decide How To Handle The Death
It’s one thing to tell your child that her favorite Uncle John died. It’s quite another thing to see him in a casket and being buried during a funeral. “Watching a body in a coffin being buried underground may be too upsetting and confusing for the young mind and developing emotional system,” warns Dr. Walfish. That’s why she advises that children under the age of 5 not attend a funeral service. If your child is older, she should be given the choice of going, but you’ll need to prepare her about what she will see. Additionally, “She should be assigned a warm, loving and supportive family member to partner with her during the duration of the entire service,” says Dr. Walfish. And if you do allow your child to go, make sure that she can leave the service if and when it becomes too much for her.
6. Keep Communication Open
As much as you might want to shut down and sob yourself to sleep, how you handle the death is a pivotal part of how your child will grieve. After all, children mourn a death very differently than adults do, and it’s important to realize that your child might suffer from the loss on and off for years after it’s occurred, reported a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information. That’s why you should make it a point to talk with your child about how sad it feels when you lose someone you love. Your discussions don’t have to be all doom and gloom, though. “Highlight all the fun things you did together and have your child tell stories of fun memories, too,” offers Dr. Walfish. That can help your child remember better times and not focus so much on the pain of the loss.
7. Allow Your Child To Feel
Bereavement can be brutal. One day, you might feel numb, and the next, you’re raging. You might be surprised that your child’s emotions run the gamut, too, from confusion (i.e. “Why did Grandpa die?”) to anger (i.e. “Why did he have to die? Why not someone else’s Grandpa?!”) “It’s important to give permission for angry feelings to be expressed,” advises Dr. Walfish. It not only will validate your child’s emotions, but it also can help the healing process, cited the Center for Loss & Life Transition.
8. Create A Bonding Moment
After a loss, try to do something fun and positive with your child. You might want to make a scrapbook with your child about the deceased person. Allow your child to glue photographs of the lost family member onto paper, draw pictures of her own to include in the book, and choose a place where she can keep the book to refer to on her own terms. “This gives your child an opportunity to expel emotions otherwise pent up as well as offers her a sense of control where death is something none of us can control,” offers Dr. Walfish. This helps give her coping skills that will help your child in the future.
9. Offer Support
According to WedMD, there is no time limit to grieving, and it can be affected by a variety of factors. That said, if you feel that your child’s grieving process isn’t showing signs of improvement— and you’re ill-equipped to handle her emotions on top of yours — it might not a bad idea to see a family therapist, speak with a grief counselor or spiritual advisor, or join a bereavement group. “I believe support groups are extremely helpful so folks can see that they are not alone,” says Dr. Walfish. That way, you can all talk about your feelings in a safe place, and you can learn strategies and solutions to help you get through this troubling time in life.
10. Talk About Your Loved Ones
For some kids, grandparents (or other loved ones) may have passed away even before they were born or old enough to remember them. But it's still important to mention them or answer questions that your child might have, advises Dr. Walfish. "Be honest with them as to why their loved one is no longer here," she says. Explain that the person died because of an illness or old age, and give your kid time to try to absorb the information. She might come back to you with follow-up questions in the future. And when it's natural, be sure to talk about the person in conversation. For example, if your child loves chocolate chip cookies, you can say, "Oh, those were Grandma's favorite, too." That way, your child can form a connection to that loved one, and have positive connotations associated with him or her.
Sure, death is a part of life, and as such, you’ll need to speak with your child about it at some point or another. But being prepared can help you and your family honor your loved one, cope with the loss together, and move forward in a positive manner.