By Alyssa Warmland
Children tend to be naturally curious as they grow and learn to navigate the world. As adults, it’s our job to walk with them through that process of learning and to support their curiosity. It can be hard to do that with respect when we are situated in cultures that don’t acknowledge children as autonomous humans worthy of mutual respect. It can be tempting to encourage kids to ignore their feelings about death and grief or to shut down conversations about it when they ask questions. Sometimes, this is because we just don’t know what to say that is developmentally appropriate, especially with young children. Sometimes, it’s because we haven’t allowed ourselves to develop our own thoughts and feelings about death and grief and it feels uncomfortable for us to talk about.
What grieving children need from adults in their lives is to feel heard, just like adults do. When a child asks questions or talks about death or grief, here are some ideas of things to say and how to prompt conversations that allow us to listen:
– Tell me more about your ideas about dying. What do you think happens after someone dies? Those are good ideas, thanks for sharing them with me. I think [insert your own cultural or family beliefs about death].
– How are you feeling about [the being the child is grieving]? Do you want to tell me about some of your favourite memories about them? It’s okay to talk about it.
– It’s okay to feel however you are feeling. It’s okay to feel scared or curious about dying. You’re not alone. Do you want to tell me more about what’s going on for you? I love you and I’m here for you.
– Death isn’t something people can control, I want to make sure you know it’s not your fault [person/animal] died. Sometimes things just are and we can’t do anything about – them, but we can talk about how we are feeling about it.
It can also help to read children’s books about grief. Even if you don’t read them with your children, they might help give you the language to talk with them about death and grief when you’re not sure what to say. Most professionals recommend using direct language, such as “death”, “dying”, and “grief”, rather than terms like “passing away”, because they are easier for children to understand.
It’s important for children to know they’re not alone in their feelings and that it’s okay to feel hard things with the adults in their lives. Humans are social creatures who crave connection. Even when it’s hard or uncomfortable, pausing our busy lives to make that time for connection with children is important so they can learn how to process grief or whatever other feelings they’re having. It can also be an opportunity to re-parent ourselves. It might help to ask ourselves why we feel uncomfortable with a topic and what our own inner child might need to hear about the feelings that come up for us about death and grief. It’s important to seek out connection and space to process those feelings too, whether that’s through therapy or with other adults we trust to be vulnerable with.
Grief literacy and emotional literacy in general is worth making space for. Children have valid feelings worth expressing and being heard it’s it’s okay to stumble, imperfectly, within those conversations with them. Being with them is what is most important.
Kids Help Phone
Children’s Grief Foundation
Children and Youth Grief Network
Children’s Grief Colouring Book
National Alliance for Children’s Grief
Bereaved Families of Ontario
The Dougy Center