Recently a child at our elementary school passed away. In a local mom's group, there was a discussion about how to talk to our kids about it. I thought I'd share my response with you all here.
My kids were 5 and 7 when our infant son passed away. Unfortunately, we had to deal with it suddenly and unexpectedly. Fortunately, I have gained much wisdom through this process.
- Tell the truth. Don't sugarcoat it, don't use words like "passed away" or "is no longer with us". As hard as it is for us as an adult to say, you need to say "she got really sick, the doctors did everything they could to help her, and she died."
- Depending on the maturity level of the child, they may still believe in magical thinking concepts. This means that they may not understand that death is permanent. Be prepared to discuss that she will not be able to be alive again.
- Older or more emotionally mature children may be beginning to understand the concept that death is universal. It can be helpful to explain that everything dies. Nature is a perfect place to illustrate this concept. Especially in the fall, leaves are falling off and dying. You can relate it to a pet that has died as well. They will ask you if you will die too, or if they will die too. Please be honest with them! Tell them "yes, we will all die someday."
- Although the concept of Heaven is fairly Universal, please remember that there are atheist families and telling them that God took their child or that the child is with Jesus can cause disagreements between kids. Please keep this in mind when you are explaining to your child. We used to tell our kids that every family gets to make their own rules on some things and that they have different names that they call things. Like our grandma is called Kiki, some people have different names for heaven.
- If your child is a boy, don't assume that he's not grieving because he's not crying. Boys often express anger or act out rather than crying. Also, boys are more likely to open up and talk during side-by-side activity. Play cars with them, a video game, watch a baseball game. Don't try to sit knee to knee and talk about your feelings.
Although we all hope to not have these conversations, they are inevitable. I hope that these guidelines are a help to you!