Children ask great questions, and their imaginations are wonderful. Those imaginations, however, mean that they need adults to be honest and clear during the heaviest moments of life. When adults are not clear, children’s imaginations often create bigger fears and anxieties than if they had a safe space to wrestle with their worries.

Those in the funeral and deathcare industry have a role to play in helping to navigate sensitive subjects, including death and dying from a child’s perspective. Families, especially grieving ones, will look to experts for guidance on the right approach.

Here is some advice on how adults can explain death and dying to children, which can be used as a tool when talking with families.

Using the Right Language

The first step in talking to children about death is using language that children understand. When adults talk to each other, it is common to hear someone say, for example, “My grandma passed away.” The phrase “passed away” is standard, but it is one of the many phrases adults use that can be confusing to children.

Children need concrete language. Up until about age six, they are magical thinkers, and the finality of death is hard for them to grasp. “Passed away” has no significance to them. Oftentimes, adults will try to use soft language, thinking it will help a child. They may say, “Grandpa went to sleep” and then wonder why their child is struggling to sleep at night. The child’s logic is that Grandpa never woke up from his slumber, and that creates a deep fear in going to sleep. Children are very literal.

The best words to use when talking to children about death are the hardest ones to say. The reason adults use phrases such as “passed away” is because adults are fearful of sounding too harsh or making a loved one’s death real by saying it out loud. Instead, it is important to use concrete words, such as “death,” “dying,” and “dead.” There is no doubt that it hurts to say those words out loud, but adults need to help children understand what happened and set a firm, loving foundation for their grief. Language matters, and it is the first step in being a safe space for grieving children.

Grief is Individual

One of the many things grief professionals maintain is that everyone grieves and processes emotions differently. Children process their feelings through play. When you tell a child someone they know died, they may or may not ask questions before running off to play. It may confuse you or even make you think they do not care. On the contrary, they are working through some big feelings.

Staff at funeral homes may meet a curious child asking questions about their family member’s body, clothes, or grave site, and then be met with silence before a child trots off, only to come back later with more detailed questions.

Kids also love to ask deep questions hours or days after they are told that someone they love is dying or has died. They play. They reflect. Then out of nowhere they may throw out a question about the afterlife or the dying process that may not even occur to an adult. Their imaginations have been running.

Creating Space for Kids to Grieve

There are some wonderful ways adults can support kids after they hear someone is dying or has died. Most major cities have grief centers, such as Bo’s Place or the Dougy Center, that serve as a safe space for kids to express their grief, and each of these places have resources on their websites.

At home and at school, parents, teachers, clergy, and other adults in the child’s life can demonstrate that big feelings are OK. Give kids permission to grieve and express emotions in a healthy way. There are also wonderful children’s books on death, dying, and grief that can guide children in articulating how they feel while helping them understand grief and the finality of death.

Funeral homes can have resources ready for their own education and to provide to families. They can also have activity and coloring sheets available to children in case a child needs to pause and play. Adults may need tissues and to hear a favorite hymn, but kids will need to quietly play. Emotion-based activities that can be done sitting in a chair will help a child process what they are seeing and hearing in the funeral home.

The Language of Grief and Play

No matter what role you have in the funeral or deathcare industry, the most important thing to remember is to talk to children in concrete language. Let them ask questions on their time. Be patient and clear. And, if a child asks you to play with them, play.

Adults can learn a lot from children on how to grieve, because children are not worried about what others think of them. They do not always understand what death means and what to do, so they will look to adults and trusted professionals for peace, clarity, and answers. Their gift in their grief is a life full of trusted adults ready to meet them where they are.

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