How to talk to a child about death
Beginning a conversation, using clear language, encouraging a child to talk and useful resources
Discussing death is a difficult conversation to have with any child, whatever their age, so here are some ideas to encourage an open discussion...

Begin a conversation as soon as possible

The instinct for many families will be to try to protect their children from becoming upset, so beginning a conversation when someone has died will feel incredibly difficult. It is usually best to tell a child as soon as possible in an environment which feels safe to them and is free of distractions.

Children of different ages are likely to have a different understanding of death. Five-year-olds and under may struggle to understand that death is permanent, while older children may have some understanding of death but may not have been previously affected by it. Teenagers may find it hard to ask for support while seeking independence in life.

Not all the information needs to be shared at once. Younger children may need to have several conversations to talk over what happened before they are able to process and understand.

Use clear language

Adults can use a varied language when talking about death, many of which avoid being direct about what's actually happened. This can add to the confusion for children who already may struggle to understand death. For example, a child who is told that "we've lost grandma" will instinctively want to go looking for grandma.

Direct and clear language can feel insensitive to adults, but for children it is helpful to use words such as 'died' and 'dead' to avoid further confusion. Children can be better equipped to cope when told clearly that "their body stopped working" or "when someone has died, they can never come back".

Encourage the child to talk

Sometimes a child will say very little about someone after they have died. Adults can interpret their silence as a sign that they're coping well, but often it can be that they're worried about saying anything because they're fearful of upsetting others. Talking about the person who has died, and your feelings can help children to know that it's okay to open up.

It's important to be mindful of any questions that they have and keep responses short and appropriate for their age and understanding. It's also best to be honest when you don't know the answer to a question.

Use resources to help understanding

There are several books and resources that can be shared with children to help with conversations about death. Winston's Wish is a charity that publishes several resources, including activity books. 'Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine' is one of its activity books that can help the child to understand their feelings and memories about the person who died.

Activities can help children remember

As children grow and each year passes, memories of the person who died may dim and this can be upsetting. It's important that they have something to refer to from time to time. Sharing activities that help to keep those memories alive can be reassuring for children and provide opportunities to talk about the happy times spent with the person who died.

They could also keep a memory box. This can be filled with reminders of that person including photos, a piece of clothing and other items that evoke memories and can be decorated by the child. A memory book is another option for children to write their stories and memories, and to draw pictures of times spent together.

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