When someone important to your child or children has died, they need to be told in a way that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding. It may feel like one of the hardest things you will have to say to them and you may feel worried that you will make them upset or even break their hearts. From talking to children who have been through this experience they often say that they would prefer to be told. Children have told us that they have overheard adult conversations or just picked up that something was going on. Often for children the not knowing is scarier than the knowing.
In our experience it is most helpful if the word ‘dead’ is used. Phrases like passed away or gone to sleep may be especially confusing to a young child. If the person has gone to sleep who else in the family will go to sleep and not wake up?
Children need a clear and honest account of what has happened and why. This doesn’t mean to say that they have to be told everything in great detail all at once but just given a simple, clear explanation. For example daddy had a very very poorly heart, it stopped working and the doctors tried their best but they couldn’t fix it so he has died. Honest explanations are also helpful when someone has chosen to end their life.
You may feel worried that you might cry in front of your children, particularly when you are explaining what has happened. We believe that it is ok to cry in front of children at times. It gives them a message that it is ok for them to cry and that this is an ok response; something very sad has occurred.
Time to Process
Once you have talked with your child or children, they may need you to let them know that they can ask questions now or as they think of them. Sometimes children will simply leave the room or change the subject; this can usually indicate that they need some time to process what they have heard.