Stop Lying to Your Children About Death

Editor’s Note: Discover a powerful article urging open conversations about death with children. Addressing a crucial topic for the End of Life community, it emphasizes the importance of honesty when discussing death with kids, with valuable insights on fostering understanding, empathy, and resilience in young minds during challenging times. For the original, please visit USA Today here.

PLEASE NOTE: Posts and comments on EOLONM’s Blog are the views of the respective writers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of End of Life Options New Mexico, its board, or volunteers.

Experts say it's best to be as upfront as possible with kids when it comes to grief.

Why you need to tell them the truth.

Our goldfish swam into the ocean. Grandpa went on a long trip. We took the dog to the farm.

Euphemisms for death abound, and it’s easier to lie to kids and skip an uncomfortable, unsettling conversation. But those euphemisms might actually do more damage.

“All of those euphemisms backfire horribly, and really erode trust,” says David Kessler, grief expert and founder of Grief.com, who has talked to people who have trouble sleeping their whole lives because as kids they were told grandma went to sleep and never woke up. “And the advice I always give is age-appropriate truth.”

Yes, experts say it’s best to be as upfront as possible with kids when it comes to death. Because the second a child feels love, the grieving process has already started. “If they’re old enough to love, they’re old enough to grieve,” Kessler says.

‘Parents are often unprepared’

Parents naturally want to protect their children from everything. From feeling pain, from feeling sadness, from, well, feeling. This includes grief.

“Parents are often unprepared for how early the questions come,” Kessler says. It makes sense, though, when you think about how much death permeates children’s movies like “Frozen” and many of the Disney classics that touch on parents’ deaths, not to mention the reality of losing grandparents, neighbors and pets.

Age is a big factor in regards to how kids experience grief. A 2- to 4-year-old, for example, may not consider death permanent, according to Loree Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist. As kids get older, they might see death as something reversible before coming to terms with death’s finality.

Parents play a key role in shepherding these conversations, and don’t help by trying to mask their emotions.

“They think by hiding their own grief – tears, anguish or other sometimes immense emotions – that they are protecting their children,” says Gina Moffa, licensed clinical social worker and author of “Moving On Doesn’t Mean Letting Go.” “The instinct is noble, but there needs to be a middle ground. Children need to know from a young age that it’s OK to feel their emotions and that they are allowed to express their feelings and experiences openly – especially around confusing emotions like grief.”

'I didn't want to sugarcoat it'

Growing up, Andrew Knapp lived in a home where grief stayed bottled up – so much so that when his mother died about nine years ago, he didn’t process it. It wasn’t until his 13-year-old border collie Momo died, and he wrote a children’s book about it called “Find Momo Everywhere,” that he worked through the compounded grief.

“I know it’s not going to be the easiest book for everyone because it starts off so happily,” Knapp says. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat it very much. I wanted to say he died. I was sad, I was angry, I was confused. I didn’t know how to deal with those emotions. That’s normal. That’s OK. I’m a grown adult, and I’m feeling awful about it.”

Children may express grief in all kinds of ways, both before and after loss, according to Moffa.

“The expressions can depend on things, such as age, emotional development, relationship to those who died and their ability to feel safe to express themselves,” she says. “Children are more affected by loss than adults may realize, even if they don’t show it – especially when they don’t show it.”

Kids typically express grief differently than adults: “Children handle grief like puddle-jumpers,” Kessler says. “They jump into the grief, then they jump into playing again. Then they jump into the pain, then they jump into playing again.”

How to talk to kids about grief

Overall, it’s best to be straightforward when discussing death and grief with kids (within reason; you wouldn’t want to go into the grimy details of a major accident, for example). If grandma died, say she died, and she isn’t coming back. As kids grow, they may have questions about their loved ones’ (or even their own) mortality. How you answer these questions may evolve as children get older, but for young kids, it’s best to keep it simple: “Yes, everyone will die someday, but most people have a good life. Here’s what we are doing to stay healthy.”

“It’s OK to talk to kids about death directly and the many feelings that are associated with it,” says Jessica MacNair, licensed professional counselor. “I recommend being direct and (avoiding terms) like ‘went away.’ You’ll want to avoid using any kind of confusing language.” Books and pictures and other age-appropriate material could help aid these conversations.

When talking with kids about loss – any kind, including losing a friend, a game, a role in a play – adults must pay attention to what children say and how they channel their emotions. Are they acting out? Angrier than usual? Afraid?

“Let them know that however they feel, it’s OK to feel it, and even to express it to you as a parent,” Moffa says. “Be willing to have a conversation at a time that leaves room for your kids to ask questions, and incite them to ask whatever they may want to know, even if it is upsetting.”

Plus, be vigilant for physical changes: “Kids are more likely to experience feelings physiologically than adults – look for somatic symptoms like stomach aches or headaches,” Johnson adds.

'Grief comes in waves'

You, as an adult, have to embrace vulnerability, too. For your kids’ sake and your own.

This includes letting them take part in rituals around death, like funerals. Yes, even for a goldfish. “Something as ‘tiny’ as a goldfish loss can be a big deal to a young person,” MacNair says.

Kids also need to know that “grief comes in waves, and sometimes in one moment, you feel OK, and another moment you feel awful,” MacNair adds. “That’s completely normal.”

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