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Talking to kids about death: How do I tell my kids that Nana or Grandad has died?

Talking to kids about death: How do I tell my kids that Nana or Grandad has died?

I feel like I haven’t written a totally on-topic blog in a couple of weeks!  Well here goes again….

Some friends of mine asked me this question. Although their parents are all alive and well they are aware of everyone getting older, and the reality that no-one lives forever, and it’s already on their minds when something happens to any of their parents…..how and what do they tell their kids about Nana/Grandad/Poppa/Granny/Nan?

I have two big tips here –Honesty and Trust. Let’s start with….

Honesty

Every day I’m involved in conversations and read articles about the fact that we live in a society (particularly in the UK) that denies and hides from the only truly inevitable thing in life – death.  Our society in general doesn’t plan for it, write wills or keep them up to date, doesn’t discuss wishes (funeral, etc) with partners and families….and, let’s be honest, just doesn’t really expect to die.  And this is a huge problem for a number of reasons.  One of these is that this true denial of reality leads to a society in constant fear of death  and constantly ignoring  it. (What most people think is their ‘healthy respect’ for death is usually just fear.  I know – I’ve been watching.) This is part of the reason people don’t handle death anywhere near as well as they potentially could.

And it all starts when we are kids.  When death was hidden from us and we were kept from funerals (ok, not me) and lied to about what had happened to Aunty Mary and where she had gone.  And the stories we are told are lovely fluffy happy stories that, half the time, our own parents don’t believe. We don’t want kids to know about death because we think they’ll be scared…because we, as a society of adults, certainly are.

“We routinely shelter children from death and dying, thinking we are protecting them from harm.  But it is clear that we do them a disservice by depriving them of the experience.  By making death and dying a taboo subject and keeping children away from people who are dying or have died, we create fear that need not be there.” ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

 This cycle of fear and denial starts when we are kids…so this is your chance to do something different for them.

Be honest with your kids about death.  When it comes to this sort of things kids are so much smarter and more perceptive than most adults.  Seriously.

The don’ts:

  • Don’t use euphemisms like ‘Nana just went to sleep’. I had a friend who, as a child, was told this about a relative….and was terrified of going to sleep at night for months. Your attempts to soften reality, no matter how well-meaning, just lead to confusion and fear of the unknown.
  • Don’t tell them things you don’t believe.  If you think that the idea of heaven, angels, and white clouds is rubbish (I’m not saying it is – but if this is your belief) then don’t tell this to your kids.  The reason?  Kids are perceptive and intuitive.  If you feel like you’re lying then deep down they’ll spot that and whatever you tell them won’t stick.
  • Don’t say “Nana will be fine darling, she’s in hospital getting better” if you know Nana definitely won’t be fine.  Keep the kids honestly involved in what is happening.

The do’s:

  • Be really honest.  Tell them what death means to you.  I can’t give you a line to use – this needs to be your words.  Think about it now – how would you describe life and death?  Describe it to your kids this way.
  • Be honest about what you know, don’t know, and aren’t sure about.
  • Share your beliefs. I’m sure this bit goes without saying – whatever your religious/spiritual beliefs are you will probably already have been sharing these. What if you don’t really have any…or aren’t sure what they are exactly? Give them options if that works better for you – tell them “some people believe insert belief here” and “some people believe insert different belief here“.  This gives them the opportunity to do what the rest of us do (let’s be honest) and pick a belief that makes sense to us or that we like the most.  It took me years to work out that my family wasn’t actually the least bit religious, as I often got sent along to different churches with friends and family.  My parents didn’t really have religious/spiritual beliefs…but I think they wanted to give us the option to choose our own beliefs.
  • Be open about death from the beginning.  And call it ‘death’. Kids can be more prepared if they have had pet’s deaths explained to them and been involved in pet’s funerals, rather than had it hidden away and heard a lovely sounding explanation. Don’t say Fluffy went to live on a farm when Fluffy is buried down the back of the garden.

Trust

Trust what?

That your kids can handle the concept of death.  AND, after a death, that they can handle grief way better than you do….if you let them.

Adults are terrible at grieving.  Adults have grown up and learnt all sorts of unhelpful beliefs about grief.  We have learnt to hide from certain emotions, lie to ourselves and others, deny some of the things we are feeling, and generally get ourselves stuck.  And if we stopped thinking we have to teach our kids about it….we might all realise that it’s our kids that could teach us about it. So stop…and let them show you how it’s done.

Kids are honest about their feelings. Let them be.  A child will be sad one second, then laugh and play the next.   Adults will stop themselves from laughing and sometimes even create more pain they they are in – because they feel guilty as they are supposed to be only sad all the time after a death.  Don’t teach your kids one of the myths that you learnt – that you are only supposed to feel a certain way and that there are appropriate and inappropriate emotions around death.

Kids will be honest about what they see too….and they see the bad and the good side of death.  Frankly if adults could do these two things above (be honest about their feelings and see the good in death) I’d be out of work for good.  A child will say  “I’m really sad Grandad died.  I miss him.  But it’s good that he isn’t here to eat all the black jellybeans any more, because those are my favourites”.   Kids naturally take a 360 degree look around the situation…..while we adults have been taught to only look for black or white, depending on the situation.  And how do we respond to this child?  We say “shush!  That’s a terrible thing to say. You mustn’t ever say things like that. I hope your Grandma didn’t hear you!”……and we begin to teach them what we have learnt – that some emotions are ok and some are not.  We don’t teach them not to have certain emotions, we just teach them to hide them….like adults do.  We teach them guilt.

So those are my two tips for you – be really honest with your kids about illness, death, and dying; keep them involved and informed; don’t hide things from them AND trust that the way they naturally make sense of and understand death and grief is far healthier than anything we could try and teach them.

As always, feel free to comment below if you have anything to add, ask, etc!

Kristie

xx

 

{ 6 comments }

Haydn and Abbie O'Brien September 6, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Thanks Kristie. You are such a perceptive person, and your advice will be taken when needed of course. xx

Kristie West September 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Thanks Abs. Hope it answered the question. You know I’m always here for any more!
xx

MMPR March 11, 2013 at 11:15 am

Thank you so much!! this is great article. It helped me because it validated what I intuitively knew in my heart. I have been talking to my children about death as a natural part of life and that is going to make such a big difference now that their Nana died. You are right about children knowing better than adults …..it was a great reminder now that I feel sad and want to do the best to help them too…

Kristie West March 11, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Hi there,

you are very welcome and I am so glad you found this so helpful.

Kristie
xx

Emilie July 10, 2014 at 11:02 am

Hi Kristie,
Thank you so much for your advice. My Nana is dying and I am wondering whether I should take my children, 8 and 5, to her funeral?

Kristie West July 11, 2014 at 12:53 am

Hi Emilie,

Often people think they should ‘protect’ kids and not take them to a funeral…but this type of thing is exactly how we ended up with a society full of people with a severe fear of death and an inability to talk about it – it was hidden from them. It’s so important that kids are around death, that it is an open and honest thing, instead of a taboo that they learn to fear early on. This sets them up for how they feel about death as adults.
But this doesn’t mean all kids should be forced to go.
I think the best option is to ask them. Explain to them what a funeral is, what will happen, and that you (and everyone) will be there with them. Ask what questions they might have about it and then ask them if they want to go or not. Be open and honest and involve them in the decision. They are little but not so little that they can’t talk about this with you and say how they feel and what they might like.
I hope that helps!
Kristie
xx