How to Talk to Your Kids About Death in a Non-Scary Way

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Photo: Max Pixel

As a freelance writer who works from home, it’ inevitable that my kids often come across articles that I’m working on. I recently profiled a man named Paul Kraus, who is the longest surviving Mesothelioma patient in the world. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. The disease may appear in a couple of different forms but a diagnosis of malignant Mesothelioma typically means that the patient has between 1 to 2 years to live. Paul Kraus was given 9 months. In spite of his grim diagnosis, he is still alive today, almost 20 years after he was told he was going to die.

Although I was inspired by Mr. Kraus’ story of survival and beating the odds, I soon had to re-focus on a curious (snooping) kid who wanted to know how people can avoid getting cancer.

As much as I wanted to keep things simple and just explain asbestos-related cancer and how it could be avoided, I decided to embrace this difficult, but teachable, moment.

It’s perfectly natural to want to shield our kids from scary things and to try and always keep a positive attitude with them, but sometimes life IS scary. We can’t just pretend that negative outcomes don’t exist. We can, however, create a dialog with our kids that frames scary things in a way that makes them seem a bit less frightening or alien.

Here are some tips for broaching the subject of death with your kids in ways that may help to assuage the fears and natural curiosity that they have about the topic:

It’s Okay to Be Sad, or Even Cry, Sometimes

“Keep a stiff upper lip!,” “Be strong!,” “Hang in there,” — we are often bombarded with messages of positivity that try to make us “snap out of it” or smile when something sad happens or when we’re feeling low. But kids need to know that, especially in the case of confronting death, it is absolutely okay to cry and be sad, for as long as necessary. Even if they’ve never had the experience of someone close to them dying, it may be a subject that worries them. That’s a normal feeling for kids, especially when they’re just beginning to grasp the meaning of death.

The important thing is to acknowledge and validate their feelings. Let them know that you understand that death is a very sad thing and that they are allowed to be upset by it. Voice your support in as soothing a way as possible and let them know that whenever they’re feeling upset about this sad aspect of life, it’s always okay to lean on the people they love and trust for comfort.

Reassure Them that Time Really Does Heal All Wounds

Just as the biggest, loudest and most wrenching tantrums eventually come to an end, so does grief, in it’s own time. Explain to your kids that, it may take quite a bit of time, but they will begin to feel better at some point. Do recognize that this may be hard for them to believe, though, especially in the case of losing a very close family member or friend.

Listen carefully to their specific concerns or objections and try to address them as fully as possible. In the end, keep reiterating that healing is a process. Reassure them that when someone dies, their loved ones will eventually heal and begin to feel better. Be sure to prepare them, though, that before the healing begins, it may take some time, space and a lot of emotional ups and downs.

Be Practical

Although you’re dealing with complicated emotions, keeping things simple can help younger kids better understand what happens when someone dies. Dr. David Fassler, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, recommends using the actual words “death and dying” to describe death, rather than phrases like “passed away,” “lost,” or “crossed over.” These words can be confusing or frightening to children. Be as honest as you can about the situation and try to explain what life will be like for them after someone they love dies, so they’ll know what to expect. For example, saying things like “your favorite aunt will pick you up from school now, instead of grandma,” can help them transition more easily to a new way of life.

Discuss Rituals

Many people agonize over whether or not to let small children attend funeral services. It’s understandable to want to protect your children from something you think may traumatize them, but including them or even letting them participate in some way may actually make the experience easier for them to handle. You can explain what happens before, during and after the service in simple terms and, possibly, have them share a poem or reading about their loved one at some point. Talk about what they may see in terms of other people’s reactions or words they may hear, such as, “my condolences.” Help them understand how to respond to such words by saying “thank you,” or “thanks for being here.” Also, talking to your kids about your family’s beliefs regarding what happens to a person’s soul or spirit after death may help them to feel more comforted and empowered.

Remind Them that Life Has a Way of Balancing Things Out

Essentially, just as kids learn about the importance of sharing and about the concept of “you get what you get and you don’t get upset,” they must also learn that, in life, you have to accept the good with the bad. Remind them that even though very sad things like death happen in life, there are so many other wonderful things that can help to bring our spirits up when we are down. Tell them that, yes, sadness is a part of life that we all have to experience sometimes. Because of that, we should really do our best to focus on the joy we find in our lives whenever it comes our way

Tisha Berg is a mom, wife, freelance writer & serial optimist. She's been featured on CBS's "The Talk" & in Maria T. Bailey's book,  "Power Moms." She balances writing marketing content for businesses with sharing tips on work/life balance, productivity, relationships, writing and more via her newsletter, The Write Inspiration. Connect w/ Tisha, @TishaBerg.

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