How to talk to children about death

Shannon O'Brien

The sudden death and absence of a loved one can lead to all kinds of existential questions. But imagine how it must feel for a child trying to comprehend what appears to be the random disappearance of someone or something they loved. How do you explain it to them?

Finding herself in this situation inspired Springfield resident Susie Schrader to write a book dedicated to answering the questions children may have regarding death.

Two years ago, Schrader’s husband, Rick, died in his sleep after more than 13 years of marriage.

“He was literally here one day and gone the next,” Schrader said.

Susie and Rick were close to Susie’s best friend’s great-nieces, who were 3 and 5 years old when Rick died. The girls had just seen Rick two days before he died and couldn’t understand what had happened.

They wanted to know “why did this happen, where did he go, where is he now?” Schrader said. “They were so saddened by it that it really touched my heart. I think it really opened my eyes to how affected children are by death,” she said.

Schrader started writing poetry verses to help the girls understand what had happened to Rick. This led her to create a children’s book addressing the questions children asked her about death.

She said she believes it’s important to be as open and honest with children as their maturity level will allow.

“They don’t want to think a loved one is out floating around somewhere,” Schrader said. “They want to know what happened.”

Faith matters

Schrader said she was surprised by some of the questions the young girls raised.

Two or three nights after her husband had died, the 5-year-old asked why it had to happen. The girl thought Rick was too young to die, and mentioned that she had an elderly relative who was very ill, yet still alive. She thought it wasn’t fair Rick was gone.

Schrader said she told the girl, “We can’t be bitter to God for these things that happen.”

Schrader said she was amazed at how deeply the children were thinking about the event and questioning the fairness of it.

The answers Schrader provides in the book are grounded in her Christian faith “I know when we go through things like death and losing loved ones, it’s really important to surround yourself with people of like faith. It’s important to be where you are continually being fed with faith and hope in this life,” she said.

“We have to deal with it as adults, but children have to learn how to deal with it too,” she said.

They’re watching you

And children learn from adults.

Debi Andrews, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Memorial Counseling Associates and a registered nurse, has been helping people deal with grief for more than 25 years.

She said it can be beneficial to children dealing with grief if the adults in their lives are open about their own grief — within boundaries appropriate for the maturity level of the children.

“Parents should be good role models and express their own feelings in an honest manner. If fear is what you’re feeling, cry with your children, and that gives them permission to cry,” she said.

Andrews said grief is a normal response to loss, and children can experience loss over a change of school, a relationship breakup or a move; it’s not restricted to death.

Age ranges

However, how you help a child through the death of a loved one depends a great deal on the maturity level of the child.

Children ranging in age from 2 to 5 will have a lot of questions because they may not understand that death is permanent. Andrews said children in this age group may have bad dreams and go through some regression. Others may appear unaffected.

“Use very simple, honest explanations for what happened,” Andrews said. “And it may need to be repeated because they’ll have a lot of questions. They need to be reassured.”

Children ranging in age from 5 to 8 may have a better understanding of the permanence of death, but they may experience some “magical thinking” regarding the situation; they may think they did something to cause the event.

For example: “Because I didn’t allow Timmy to play with my toys, did I allow Timmy to die?” Andrews said. Physical activity and play can help them work through their emotions.

Children ages 8 to 12 may focus on the morbidity of death; they may show a fascination with the death ritual and process, and may need to talk about what happened. They, too, can benefit from physical activity as a way to work out emotions.

Teenagers, on the other hand, may try to put grief on the backburner. They may say they are fine rather than express how they are feeling.

In this situation, parents should provide open-ended opportunities for the teens to talk to them. Give them the opportunity, but don’t push it, Andrews said. If the reaction seems unhealthy, like the teen is withdrawing into a shell, having suicidal thoughts or acting as if the person hasn’t died, you may need to ask a counselor to talk to your teen.

In all situations, Andrews recommends giving honest, simple answers.

She suggests avoiding euphemisms when talking about death. Allow children or teenagers to participate in any death rituals, if they indicate an interest in doing so, because this can help them through the mourning process. “The best way to accept the loss is to come face to face with the reality, to see the dead person, to be with others who are dealing with the loss,” Andrews said.