How do I tell a child about a death?
It is hard to break bad news to anyone, but there are few things harder than telling a child that someone they love has died. Our deepest instinct is to protect children from pain, yet grief is the kind of thing we cannot shield them from. The best we can do is to “weep with them that weep” and comfort them in the midst of their pain.
Here is an example of how to have this challenging conversation:
“Sweetheart, I need you to sit down for a little bit. I have some very serious, very sad news to tell you. Grandma died this morning. You know she has been in the hospital and very sick, but today she died. She is in Heaven with Jesus now, and we will not be able to see her until we go to Heaven too. Do you understand?… Okay, do you want to talk about it more now, or let me know later if you have any other questions?”
- Don’t use euphemisms, like “passed away” or “went home.” Children are very literal and euphemisms can be confusing. If they think that Grandma went home from the hospital but also notice that everyone is very sad, embarassment may prevent them from asking questions they have. Do use frank, direct language immediately. It is important to repeat yourself because shock may prevent them from understanding.
- Don’t beat around the bush, delaying what needs to be said. Do tell them directly that you have bad news and that you are being serious.
- Don’t expect a certain reaction. Children have a wide variety of emotional responses that are all ordinary reactions to extraordinary situations. Do match the energy and mood of the child. If they want to move on, move on. If they want to cry, let them cry. If they want to sit in silence, let them sit in silence.
- Don’t expect to answer every question in a single conversation. Do make clear that they are welcome to talk to you about other questions they have.