How to talk to your kids about death: Here are suggestions to help them understand and accept a loss

Children confronted by death sometimes do not know how to respond.

The old adage still holds true: nothing is as sure as death and taxes. We all grow old and die, and most adults will come to terms with that fact at some point in their lives.

But when children face death, it can be a different story. Young minds find it difficult to grasp the concept of loss, whether expected or sudden. Even if it is just a pet that dies, kids sometimes struggle to understand what has happened, and they fear the same thing could happen to them or a close family member.

If death breaks the harmony of your children’s lives, here are a few guidelines to consider in helping them learn to accept it.

1. When kids are young, watch for opportunities to point out the life cycle of nature, animals, and people. Taking a fall walk in the woods provides the chance to explain to preschoolers how the changing leaves signal summer’s loss and the advent of winter. Emphasize that while fall’s beauties are short-lived and will soon pass, we look forward each year to renewed life in spring.

2. A pet that dies can be traumatic to a child. Explain that its body will return to the earth from which all living things are made, and in that process, find lasting peace. All life forms are connected through nature’s plan of birth and growth, dying and rebirth. Point out the excitement and opportunities of each phase of life, from being a carefree child to a retired senior citizen. Every stage has its own set of benefits and concerns. Death brings the cycle full circle and makes room on the earth for another person to be born.

3. Observe death with dignified rites. Death should not be viewed as an inescapable vicious enemy that will track down and destroy each one of us. Dying rather should be described as a surrender of one’s life to a natural life process. Celebrating the life of the deceased helps to preserve precious memories and the imprint of an individual life with its impact on others. Funerals, photo collages, stories, and anecdotes keep alive the person’s legacy and his or her family role.

4. Offer spiritual counsel. Whatever your religious views, discuss the potential of the human spirit’s connection to the eternal. Take your child to a house of worship to hear teaching about the nature of the soul and its place in the universe. Read scriptures that are sacred to your family, explaining those that may seem confusing. Encourage older children to explore the spiritual dimension of life with others of the faith or alone.

5. Seek support from family and resources. Other relatives, friends, and books or films can provide feedback about their experiences with or insight about dying. Sometimes assistance can be valuable in presenting a transcendent truth to children. Look for helpful resources at local bookstores or the library.

6. Provide special comfort. Allowing a distraught child to share your room a night or two and giving extra hugs or verbal affirmation may help to reassure a grieving young person. You may want to call home from work a little more frequently, become available for questions or chats, and watch for signs of clinical depression or anxiety that may include withdrawal, apathy, anxiety, or undue anger. Make an appointment with a counselor if necessary to allow your child to discuss strong emotions associated with the loss.

Death is never easy. It can be especially trying for children. Take steps now to plan for the inevitable so that you remain in control if your family experiences a loss.

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