New Jersey Although most adults acknowledge that death is an inevitable part of life, many share the belief that children should be protected from the realities of death, loss and grief. Despite the efforts of adults to avoid these subjects, children often have a greater awareness of and insight into death than we realize, explains Susan Engel, LCSW, ACHP-SW, Director of Social Services for Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center. Whether through exposure to images in news or entertainment media, experiencing the death of a relative or pet, or witnessing grief reactions in others, children come to see death as a less-than-abstract concept.

The clinical Social Workers from Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center offer the following suggestions for discussing death and dying with children.

  • Say “I don’t know.” Children ask many questions we cannot answer. Often adults have a tendency to over-explain or provide more information than a child has requested. It’s always preferable to admit you don’t have all the answers than to offer an explanation that does not seem credible.
  • Answer a question with a question. If a child asks “Where has Grandma gone, now that she has died?” rather than supply an answer ask, “Where do you think she is?” This approach can help a child begin to process the loss in a manner appropriate for his or her age, intellect and level of maturity.
  • Prepare in advance. It may be beneficial to begin talking with a child in preparation for the imminent death of a loved one. A discussion that draws upon death occurring in nature can help you approach the subject in a straightforward and less emotional way, allowing you to remain attuned to your child’s questions and concerns.
  • Avoid euphemisms. Telling a child that someone is “asleep”or has “gone away” can create confusion and fear. Use the real words: death, dying, died.
  • Explain that there is no timeline. Encourage your child to talk about his or her thoughts and feelings. Explain that there are no wrong questions, that it is normal to feel sad after losing someone, and that things may seem different for a long time.

Let your child know that the sadness will pass and that he or she will then be able to focus on happy memories of their loved one.