Helping Children After the Death of a Parent

By Isabella Simantov

Death can be a difficult and uncomfortable topic to talk about no matter your age. Unfortunately, death is an inevitable fact of life, so we do need to talk about it and we do need to teach our children about it. The way to approach this conversation will vary depending on your child’s age, you can find age specific advice in our Grief Resource Hub.

When should I first start teaching my child about death?

There is no ‘best age’ to teach your child about death, but it is recommended that you don’t treat death like a taboo subject when it does come up. Here are some tips for you to consider:

  • Embrace teachable moments: When death does occur, don’t try shield your child from it. Instead, you should view the deaths your child experiences early in their lives as teachable moments. For example, if you have a pet goldfish and it dies, don’t bury it and then buy a replacement without telling your child. Rather, explain to your child that their fish died, organise a funeral with them, and use this process to teach your child about grief and mourning. Doing this will help prepare your child for when they eventually need to confront the death of a person they are close to.
  • Use plain language: When teaching your child about death, don’t shroud the topic in euphemisms or complex language. Say “death” and “died”, explain that once death has occurred, the person or animal that is dead won’t come back. This type of language can seem harsh, which is why we usually avoid it when we can, but being ‘softer’ will make the topic seem confusing and will leave your child with the impression that it’s something they shouldn’t talk about.
  • Be confident and comfortable: You may feel uncomfortable teaching your child about death, but it’s important that your child understands what death is and feels comfortable approaching you with questions they may have about it. It’s comparable to the talk you will need to have with your child about sex, yes it may be uncomfortable, but you don’t want your child leaving that discussion confused, misinformed, and unwilling to have further discussions. So try to sound confident and look comfortable while you teach your child about death, practice if you need to, and make sure you let your child know that you are always open to future talks about it.

My child has lost a loved one, how do I tell them?

Telling your child about the death of a person close to them is not easy, and it is especially difficult if they are also learning about death for the first time. Teaching your child about death whilst they are grieving will be a challenge for you, so make sure you practice self-care while guiding your child through mourning. If you need to tell your child about the death of their parent, please refer to our blog on this topic.

As you tell your child about their loved one’s death, and teach them about death in the process, you should follow these steps:

  • Create a safe space: Before you start the conversation, make sure you find a quiet, private space for you and your child. You don’t want to have any distractions and you don’t want any people who your child isn’t comfortable with to be present. If there is another adult who will make your child (or you) more comfortable, then invite them to join you for this conversation.
  • Be prompt & honest: Delaying the information won’t make it any easier to digest, so make sure you tell the child as soon as you’re able to. Once you tell them, answer any questions they may have honestly. When giving your child information about death, make sure to use age-appropriate language, and be prepared to say “I don’t know” when they ask you something you’re not sure about.
  • Be straight-forward: You need to be careful with the language you use when talking to your child, but you shouldn’t try to soften your language by using euphemisms. Saying “passed away” or “went to sleep” can be confusing for children, especially if this is the first time they are learning about death. Speak in simple terms that they will understand, but don’t avoid words like “death”.
  • Establish open communication: Your child will have a lot of questions, both about the death of their loved one and about death in general. Try to answer all their questions honestly, admit when you don’t know the answers, and let them know how you’re feeling as well. Including your child in your grief and keeping them informed will help them feel more in control, and it will make them feel more comfortable about approaching you when they need help or comfort. You want your child to know that you will get through this difficult period of time together as a family.

How do I teach my child about terminal illness?

You likely won’t teach your child about terminal illness until someone they are close to is diagnosed with one, at which point you will wonder when the best time to talk to them is. Truthfully, there is no ‘best time’, but the sooner you explain it to them, the sooner they can begin the important task of mourning.

When explaining terminal illness to your child, be straight-forward: say words like “cancer” and “die” rather than words that you think sound nicer or easier, like “not well” and “pass on”. These vague messages can confuse children, and they may not understand what you’re trying to say. There is also the possibility that they will jump to the wrong conclusion, like the sick person will be coming back or that everyone who is sick will die.

Answer any questions your child may have honestly, be prepared to say “I don’t know”, and let your child know that you will be there for them whenever they need comfort or want to talk. You should also keep your child informed on their loved one’s treatment, ensuring you explain to them that the doctor’s won’t cure the illness, but they will make the patient feel more comfortable. Let your child visit the hospital with you and give them the opportunity to be involved in mourning rituals, this will help ease them into the idea that their loved one won’t be with them forever.

How do I teach my child about suicide?

The death of a loved one by suicide is devastating, but like with all deaths, it’s important that you tell your child what happened. When teaching your child about suicide, you need to use direct and specific language, for example: “Daddy died by suicide, which means he killed himself.”

Explain that the suicide was a tragic outcome of serious mental illness and avoid terms that imply their loved one didn’t want to be in the world anymore. Highlight that these illnesses can be treated and managed, but they can be fatal for people who are seriously struggling or not seeking help. Encourage any questions or feelings that may arise when your child learns about this, you want them to always feel comfortable to approach you about this topic.

Knowing the truth about mental illness and suicide whilst highlighting the importance of addressing and treating mental health issues when they come up will be a valuable life lesson about self-care for your child. These conversations will be difficult and uncomfortable, but avoiding or downplaying the topic will undermine your child’s trust and create a legacy of secrecy and shame in your relationship.

The best way to protect your child is by offering accurate information, a space to express feelings and ask questions, and offer comfort and reassurance.

I need additional support, where should I go?

If your family has recently experienced the death of a loved one, it’s important for you and your child to know that you’re not alone. You should ensure that you practice self-care because your wellbeing is just as important as your child’s.

Feel the Magic is here to help your family through the difficult period following a death. We provide free camps to children to help them through the grieving process, we also connect parents to our grief community so you can join a network of people who understand what you’re currently experiencing.

For more information about who we are and how we can help you, please enquire now.