Talking to your young son about death
I have been a school psychologist for the past 18 years and over this time, I have helped many parents and children through a bereavement in the family.
Parents’ first question is often centred on breaking the news to their child in the right way, and worrying about saying the wrong thing. This concern is understandable – talking about death and dying with your child can be very difficult, especially if you are grieving yourself.
It’s natural for you to want to protect your son from the pain and sadness associated with death. However, the key is to be as open and honest as you can, bearing in mind your son’s age and developmental level.
Here are some suggestions on how to talk to young kids about death:
- Choose an appropriate time and place to have the conversation
Tell your child as soon as practicably possible – you want to avoid him finding out by accident or from someone else. However, try to pick a time when you’re unlikely to be interrupted and you have your son’s full attention. Avoid telling your son immediately before bed – a conversation in the morning will still be difficult, but it allows him the rest of the day to think about and ask any questions.
- Be honest and use simple, age-appropriate language
Gear your explanation to his age, language and developmental level. Don’t shy away from using words such as ‘died’ or ‘death’ as this language helps avoid confusion. Children may misunderstand expressions such as ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘passed away’. Younger children often require a concrete explanation, so you may need to start with the plain facts of physical death, such as “I have some really sad news to tell you. Grandpa has died because he was very old and very sick. This means that his body has stopped working, so he can’t breathe or see or hear or talk or feel pain anymore.”
- Be prepared to answer lots of questions
Understanding of the concept (and finality) of death may vary, but children are naturally curious beings. Be prepared to answer questions about ‘how’ and ‘why’ the death occurred.
Through a death in the family, your son will also realise that the people they love could die, so be ready for questions including: “Will you die?”, “Will I die?”, “Who will die next?” and “What happens when you die?” Let your son know that most people die only when they are really old and/or very sick. How you answer questions about what happens after death will obviously depend on your own spiritual beliefs, but gently tell him that when someone dies, nothing can bring them back to life. It’s also important to tune in to what’s behind your son’s questions. What seems like a request for more information may actually be his indirect way of seeking reassurance from you.
- Be open about your own emotions
Breaking sad news to a child is never going to be easy, particularly if you were personally very close to the person that has died. Allowing your son to see you cry is more than OK; it helps him understand that being sad and expressing sadness is perfectly natural. However, it’s a good idea to explain your feelings to your son so that they have some context. For example, “I’m crying because Grandma has died and I feel very sad that I will never see her again”. Your son will learn from watching you, so if he sees that you are comfortable enough to talk about your feelings, he will inevitably model this.
More tips to help your son deal with the death of someone close:
- Reassure him that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Your son may not want to talk about his thoughts or feelings straight away. Help him find other ways to express himself, such as drawing pictures, writing in a journal, or even playing with toys.
- Some children regress when someone they love dies. Your son may start bedwetting again or become more clingy or needy. Children can’t always tell you what they’re feeling, but they can show you by being angry, defiant or misbehaving – you may have to read between the lines.
- Try to keep things as routine and as ‘normal’ as possible. Familiar routines provides a sense of safety, which is comforting to a grieving child. This includes reinforcing limits and behavioural expectations.
- Monitor physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches. Many kids express anxiety and sadness through physical aches and pains. If your son experiences persistent somatic complaints, coupled with changes in sleeping patterns and appetite, consult a medical professional and/or psychologist for advice and support.
Olivia Tims is Head of Psychological Services at Brighton Grammar, an all-boys school in Melbourne. This article is about Parenting
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