I got a text from a friend of mine a few months ago. She explained that she was traveling to Texas to be with her grandkids whose other grandma had just died. She asked if I had any advice on how to talk to the kids. That got me thinking about some of the things I’ve learned these last three years as we have navigated my husband’s death from cancer and the deaths of several others in our community.
I want to first acknowledge that every grief journey is unique. It’s important to be attentive to individual needs and personalities. Everything I have learned has come through trial and error with my three daughters who were ages 2, 5 and 8 when their dad died. I sought counsel from friends who have navigated the journey before me and a trusted grief counselor.
Talking to kids about death can be difficult, but we shouldn’t avoid it. Death is a reality of our life. It’s not possible for me to shield my daughters from the daily dance with death and dying. I want to be the one helping them navigate their emotions and questions. I believe normalizing conversations about death has helped give my children permission to share their feelings and grieve in a healthy way.
Here are 5 tips to keep in mind as you navigate the sensitive topic of death with little ones:
- Be direct with your language.
It’s tempting to use vague language to explain that someone died, but this can be confusing for little ones. I have learned that being direct and loving is important. If you have experienced a miscarriage or the loss of grandparent, it’s good to say “The baby died” or “Grandma died” in a direct way. My girls had the unique opportunity to be with their daddy when he breathed his last breath. After he died, we all had to navigate how to speak about it to others. I urged them to simply say, “My dad died.” We tried to avoid saying “He passed away” or “We lost him.”
- Do something creative to help them share.
Kids may not know how to express their emotions at first. I have found that engaging my girls in something creative often helps open the door for them to share. Some grief counselors even use creative play with very little ones to help them process. My girls attended a support group through Hinds Hospice after their dad died. Some of their activities included art projects. Each girl decorated a picture frame and shared memories about their dad. It’s more natural to share while doing something together.
- Give them permission to cry.
Nothing has created a more powerful connection between my daughters and me than crying together. As parents our instinct is to want to hide our tears and hold it together in front of our kids. I believe it’s important to share tears with our kids when someone dies. They witness how important that person was to you. They also have permission to grieve freely. My daughters gained a sense of empathy in this process. They comforted me and each other when the grief was especially heavy. I’ve watched them do this with others now too.
- Engage them in ways to honor the person who died.
Kids need to feel like they are part of the process. Each year I invite them to help me think of creative ways to honor their dad on anniversaries and holidays. For example, every year on his birthday they join me and we invite friends to do a special workout in their dad’s honor. Their dad loved running and fitness so this is a way we can honor him and his legacy. On the day of his Heaveniversary, we also do special things to remember him like taking a picnic to the cemetery and inviting friends over for a dinner party where we tell stories about him.
- Check in often.
Conversations about death and processing grief need to be ongoing. My daughters and I all have different things that trigger our sadness or instigate questions. I have learned it’s important to check in with each other often. We take opportunities to talk in the car on the way to school or even on family trips when we are away from our home environment. I try to schedule “date nights” with each of my girls one-on-one at least once a month so I have the space to listen and let them share.
Be encouraged, friend. You might feel inadequate to navigate these difficult conversations but just showing up is key. I always say a little prayer and ask God to give me ears to hear my children’s hearts and the right words to comfort them. This is our opportunity to share our faith with our kids in a deeper way. If we are willing to step into these hard conversations with our kids, however messy and awkward, we may crack open the door for God to bring healing for them and for us.
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**I offer coaching sessions for parents who are helping their kids navigate grief. Interested in some one-on-one help? Message me here.