Kids Need Us To Talk To Them About Death
Living with the risk of Covid-19 transmission and hearing about the hundreds of thousands of Americans that have died due to Covid-19, our children are more exposed to death and illness than in the past. Some families have been forced to have many conversations with their children due to multiple family members dying during this pandemic. Others who have not experienced death during this time may be trying to reassure kids by dismissing their concerns or just avoiding the topic.
How can we begin to speak to children about death?
The most important thing that adults can do is to become more comfortable with our own mortality. As a culture, we have to accept that none of us will live forever. We struggle talking to our kids because we are not comfortable talking to anyone about illness, death, and dying. Typically, we tend not to discuss these matters until we are forced to, making us have very little practice with a familiarity of language to use, thus creating a feeling of helplessness.
How can we, as adults, increase our own comfort with these conversations?
Start by talking with your partner, close friends, or a parent. You can use the death of a public figure like Ruth Bader Ginsburg to begin practicing talking about your feelings related to this loss; how you perceived her death from cancer, does cancer run in your family and are you worried about this? Anytime we talk honestly and openly with another person about illness, death or grief, we are practicing. There are games, like The Death Deck, and many other conversational card games and apps available that can help ease you into these conversations.
The more comfortable we can be, with ourselves and our partners, the more comfortable we will be with our kids. It’s an ongoing process. As our comfort increases within the topic, we can then discuss what we want to happen should we get sick, finally complete that Will or Advance Directive, and position ourselves to experience the end of life experience that we want.
When talking to children about illness and death:
- Use clear, direct language that your child can understand. “Grandma died today.” Avoid euphemisms as they are confusing. “Grandma is gone” or “We lost Grandma” suggests that Grandma is coming back, or we might have misplaced Grandma.
- Share your personal feelings about the death or illness of someone you know. This demonstrates that it’s okay to talk about the topic. “I’m sad that someone I looked up to has died.” Lean into these opportunities to gently explore their thoughts on death.
- Help give them language to help them understand their feelings. “I wonder if you are feeling scared about what dad will look like in the hospital now that he’s so sick.” Give them permission to express their feelings.
- If they bring up fears about you dying, validate those fears. “I know it’s scary to think about me or anyone you love dying.” Reassure your child that most people die at an old age, but acknowledge that we all will die one day. If the questions are related to Covid-19, share what steps you are doing to be safe during the pandemic to reduce your risk of getting sick.
- If you are very uncomfortable with these conversations, admit it. “Growing up, we didn’t talk about death, but I think it’s important and I’m trying to learn how so that you don’t feel so nervous talking about it.”
- Take action and be prepared for your death. Basic tasks like preparing a living will, deciding who will care for your child, completing an advance directive, and considering life insurance, sets the stage for your child to have a less traumatic experience should you die. You can inform them that you have made arrangements and have it all planned out so that they will be cared for no matter what happens.
Keep The Conversations Ongoing
The more comfortable we are with illness and death and can normalize these conversations as individuals and a culture, the more likely our kids will be to grow up with a healthy understanding and awareness of their mortality. Imagine how well they will be able to communicate with future generations on this topic if we do the work now.