So you want to talk to your kids about death

This week I lost someone I know personally to COVID-19. Her name is Sue, she lived in Arizona, and she was a great friend to my parents for more than 50 years.

If Americans continue to shirk social-distancing guidelines, it's very likely that, in short order, we all will know someone who has died of this disease. I don't say this to scare anyone, or to advertise my cynicism. In fact, if you are reading the news I'm reading, you may be starting to think my conclusion is of the foregone variety.

With that in mind, I thought it would be a fine time to share some tips about talking to kids about death — because it's important to start early, preferably before tragedy strikes, and to answer their questions directly and calmly.

Here are 10 tips.

1. Avoid euphemisms. 

Passed away. Taken away. Resting place. Went to sleep. Left. These terms are fine for adults, who know the score, but they’re terrible for kids, who might find it really damn creepy that their uncle was “taken away.” These terms, as well as many of those provided by religious doctrine, are just too abstract for a young children, says Earl Grollman, who wrote the excellent book Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child.

Instead, use the real words: Die. Death. Kill. Murder. Suicide. Coffin. Cremation. Funeral. When we speak directly and specifically — even if the words seem sharp and awkward in our mouths at first — we avoid painful confusion and misunderstandings, Grollman says.

2. Look for opportunities to broach the subject.

A dead bird in the yard can be a fantastic point of entry. Taking the time to explore the bird’s death, what “dead” means, and why the bird died can open up those lines of communication in remarkably effective ways. Of course, many parents put off these conversations because their children are young and/or they themselves are sensitive to the subject. Each child is different, of course, but generally kids want to hear about death much earlier than we expect. We know they’re ready when they start asking questions: “Why is that bird not moving?” “What happened to the evil queen?” “Where did your grandma go?”

3.  Know when to stop talking.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. We parents want nothing more than to comfort our kids. Soothing them is in our nature. But when it comes to talking about death, experts say, less is more. Explain death as simply as possible, then step back and let listening take over. Nods and hugs are fine, but parents who try too hard to comfort with words can end up explaining more than a child wants, or is ready, to hear. And feeling acknowledgers are always always a good thing — "I hear how worried you are that Mommy or Daddy may die, too." When in doubt, try turning the questions back on the child, suggests Grollman. When a child asks: “What did Grandma look like after she died?,” a parent might answer: “What do you think she looked like?” This gives us insight into our children’s imaginations and helps us guide the conversations where they need to go.

4. Get an assist from children's books.

I've read a lot of children's books about death. These are my absolute favorites.

  • When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. I can’t say enough great things about this book, which is why I dedicated an entire post to it on my last blog.

  • The Tenth Good Thing about Barneywritten by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. This adorable classic is about a boy losing his cat. Such smart writing. “Barney is in the ground, and he’s helping to grow flowers,” the boy’s father says at one point. “You know,” the boys responds, “that’s a pretty nice job for a cat.” (Here's a reading of the book on the YouTube.)

  • About Dying by Sara Bonnet Stein. I’m crazy about this oldie, which is a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side.

  • When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome? No. No, he didn’t. This is no exception.

  • The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia. The main character in this book is a leaf who is coming to terms with the fact that he will fall (die) at some point. It’s quite gentle and calming and would be great introduction to death, particularly for sensitive kids who may be prone to anxiety over the subject.

  • Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola. Okay, this one is not about death, but about the reality of growing old and getting sick. It is one of my favorite children’s books of all time — so sweet and poignant, it is guaranteed to make you cry. And the best part is that it has a happy ending.

5. Share the science part.

Talking about decomposing bodies may seem a ghoulish proposition, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children (particularly preschoolers), but can be comforting, too. It’s true that adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, for instance. But children between the ages of 3 and 5 aren’t as consumed by the grief. They are still working on how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”) This is why it’s so important to explain to kids how we humans work — how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness. “Most children understand the concept of something that has ‘stopped working completely and can’t be fixed,’” social worker Debra Stang once told me. “It’s also important to reassure children that a dead person doesn’t breathe, wake up, go to sleep, or need to go to the bathroom, doesn’t hear or see anything, doesn’t get hungry or cold or scared, and doesn’t feel any pain.”

6. Don't shield kids from grief.

When your children lose someone they love, they benefit from being brought into the fray, as it were, rather than sequestered from it. Also, children need confirmation of death more than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent event. Witnessing the grief, as long as it's not too intense or scary, is just as important. Whether it's leaving the room to cry, or shielding kids from funerals, or not allowing kids to be present when our pets are euthanized, sometimes we deprive kids of the mourning process. Allowing them to be "with us" through the dark times allows us to teach them that it’s okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

7. Remind kids of their own resilience.

In his incredibly enlightening book, “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” author George Bonanno says that resilience is what truly defines the grieving. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Even weeks after devastating losses, many are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. This is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather their own natural resiliency, Bonanno says. In general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in “waves” — which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us. Bonanno’s philosophy is that we humans are a lot more resilient than we think we are. We are hardwired to adapt, and that’s what we do. Most of us adapt much more quickly than we think possible — which is both good and healthy. No one should be surprised when a person finds joy and happiness soon after the loss of a loved one.

8. Remember: ‘I don’t know' is a totally acceptable answer.

No one, not one person in all of history, has ever known for sure what happens when we die. So why is it that we parents have such a hard time admitting we don’t know? When it comes to death — and, frankly, religion in general — we sometimes feel we must be on one side or another in order to maintain stability and consistency in children’s lives. But this is one area where saying “I don’t know” will never be seen as a sign of weakness or ignorance. What our children choose to believe as far as heaven/afterlife/reincarnation really has nothing to do with us anyway. We can state what we believe to be true, and we can state what other people believe to be true (to the best of our knowledge), but telling our children we’re confused is also okay. Telling them we keep changing our minds is okay, too. And throwing up our hands and telling them we haven’t got the slightest idea what’s going to happen — dammit, that’s okay, too.

9. Seek help if needed.

Sometimes we just can’t do it. No matter how much we want to, talking about death with our kids is a challenge we can’t face. Maybe we have suffered a particularly devastating loss recently, or maybe WE’VE JUST GOT SOME ANXIETY ISSUES, OKAY?! Whatever the reason, there is no shame in handing off the baton to someone (another adult, a therapist) or something (the Internet, the library) better suited to guide our children in positive ways. By showing our kids that they have lots of resources and support available to them, we ensure that when we aren’t around, they will still have their needs met.

10. Talk about dead people in happy terms.

After a person dies, the only thing we have of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don’t talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all. But honoring our dead and keeping them “with us” is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort. Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consume at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping — not just with their deaths but with death in general. Giving memories of our dead a happy “place” among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.