Each family has their own religious or non-religious beliefs about life and death, where a person goes after death, and their own ways to grieve and process death. Regardless of your own beliefs, and those of your partner if applicable, the key goal should be to ensure your child’s questions are answered in the most honest and sincere way.
Children need concrete, real, and honest facts, but also age appropriate conversations to cope in the best way and in a healthy way. But how do you do that? Here are some examples on age appropriate ways to discuss death, using the passing of a grandparent:
3 to 6-year-old: Grandma passed away. Do you know what that means? That means she has died; you won’t see Grandma again. Pause, wait to see how your child reacts, and take the conversation from there.
6 to 9-year-old: Grandma has passed away, and then perhaps offer a bit more detail, like, It happened at the hospital and Grandpa and Daddy were there to say goodbye. You will have a chance to say goodbye too, because we are going to have a funeral for Grandma in a couple of weeks. Do you know what a funeral is?
Older children, such as kids age 9+, will likely have more of an immediate understanding of what death means, which can cause questions about the afterlife and general mortality to arise. Break the news in a straightforward, loving manner as you would a child of any age, and then let your child do the talking. Be prepared to answer questions your child may have about “where will Grandma go?” “What happens when we die?”, etc. They may want to go away and come back with questions.
If your family is religious, go ahead and share your beliefs are about the afterlife with your child. You can also explain that different people have different ideas about what happens, but that this is what you believe. Invite your child to learn more about different beliefs and connect with what resonates for them.
Perhaps your family does not believe in afterlife, or parents are divided in their beliefs. If you are not able to tell your child that you believe there is such a thing as heaven or an afterlife, simply stick to the facts. For example, something like “grandma’s body died, so we won’t see her again. I don’t know for sure what happens next, but I know she is not hurting anymore. We can keep Grandma in our thoughts and remember her together, and talk about her anytime we want. It’s like she is always with us in our hearts.”
When in doubt, it is always ok to say “Nobody knows for sure what happens after we die”.
Sometimes parents wonder if it is appropriate to bring children to a funeral, or if this will make them more confused or upset. I tell parents that funerals are an important ritual to help us say goodbye and move through the stages of grief, so children should be welcomed and encouraged to participate. Another tangible way a child can cope and grasp the meaning of death and the permanence of it is to take them to the grave site or the place where the person was buried or where their ashes were placed.
Overall, inviting your child to ask questions and continuing the conversation at different stages of the grieving process will help them develop healthy coping strategies and know that no matter how tough the topic, they can always ask you anything.
To learn more about helping children cope with death, please take a look at the online course we created to help families like yours.