How do I talk to my children about death?
When Rechelle Leahy’s husband Allistair was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer in 2013, they faced a difficult decision: when, and how, they would tell their two children – aged just six and four – about his impending death.
It’s a situation no one wants to find themselves in but, given the inevitability of death (and with one in 20 Australian children losing a parent before the age of 18), it’s a topic we ought to be prepared to tackle.
So how to do it?
According to the paediatric psychologist Deirdre Brandner, parents of young children can start this discussion with a focus on small creatures or plants, giving children the basic understanding that “living things die”.
“The death of pets, whether they are ours or others’, can be a helpful way to introduce this topic,” she says. “Talking about how we felt when a pet or someone we loved died will allow children to better understand the grief process.”
She says while children under five will struggle to understand that death is irreversible and universal, it’s still important that they’re told when someone they know has died, though parents might consider the amount of information shared.
“Keep explanations brief but honest,” she advises. “Young children tend to ask more direct questions and often ask the same questions over and over again because they are trying to process this event. Sometimes we want to avoid discussing death with children because we are worried or fearful about how they will cope, [but] talking to children about death will allow them to feel more secure and supported.”
Matthew Kwoka of Southern Cross Funerals, who runs a video series called Death Defined that aims to break the stigma around the “death conversation”, says children often gain an understanding of death when bearing witness to someone’s declining health during a terminal illness, but sudden or tragic deaths can be more traumatic.
“[The] immediate departure of a parent … is a totally different kind of grief,” he explains. “The shock factor is more traumatic for all involved and is a far more difficult situation to explain to a child.”
In such cases, Brandner suggests planning your talk first (running it by a friend can be helpful), speaking openly in language children will understand, using words like died or dead over “went to sleep” or “passed away”, which create confusion and do not help the grieving process.
“Tell children the truth and do so as soon as you can,” she advises. “Be calm and set the emotional tone. Carefully watch for your child’s reaction and follow their lead. Reassure them that they are safe and cared for. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information at the beginning but be there to answer questions in the coming days.”
While their responses will depend on their age and developmental stage, Brandner says it’s important to give children time to process the information, to validate their feelings, and to remember that there’s also “much variability in how any of us grieve”.
She suggests rituals, experiences and routines as a way to help the process. This could include creating memory books or slideshows to remember the person, along with planting their favourite flower or making their favourite meal, or lighting a candle. She also suggests sticking to children’s regular routine where possible, to bring a sense of normalcy to their days.
“Young children in particular need reassurance that their life will go on no matter what happens,” she says. “Some children will not display any adverse reactions, but others may exhibit increases in irritability, anxiety, clinginess or anger outbursts.
“There can be changes in appetite, losing themselves in screens or retreating to their rooms. We do need to provide comfort and flexibility in supporting children during this time. However, children respond and are best supported by routine and consistency. It makes them feel secure that their world is still the same.”
Leahy says her boys were understandably sad after their father’s death. They’d ask questions about whether Allistair could see them, if he was missing them and what he would do now that he wasn’t there in person any more. As a family they’ve been open about their feelings since Allistair’s death: celebrating his birthday with cake and his favourite movies, and releasing balloons on the anniversary of his death with notes attached, telling him what they have been up to.
“The conversation [about his death] was the hardest we had as a family,” Leahy says. “It was devastating to know that the loss of the boys’ dad would leave such a big gap in their lives, but it was also a way to show the boys that it was OK to have complicated emotions, to show them that adults get sad too.”
After losing her mother, grandmother and husband in 10 years, Leahy launched iDecide, a platform with “bank-level” security that allows users to plan and store crucial information for loved ones in case of their death. She says being open and honest helped alleviate her children’s anxiety at an incredibly tough time.
“We need to include our families in this conversation,” she says. “It empowered Allistair to manage the narrative around his own death and [helped] the boys understand that when he died it was not him abandoning them, but that death is part of the lifecycle and he would still be with them every day because he is part of them.”
• Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults and children