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How to talk to kids about loss and death

Be ready for anxiety, feelings of being overwhelmed, say experts

Published: January 27, 2022 18:45 Last updated: January 27, 2022 18:56 Karishma H. Nandkeolyar, Parenting Editor



“About a month ago we lost two family members from COVID-19. It was hard for me to process and accept, especially since I couldn’t be at their funeral and with loved ones during those difficult moments. During that time, I wasn’t feeling very well emotionally and that was portrayed in my parenting,” admits Dubai-based Dina Dimitriou, Coaching Psychologist and author of the book 'Are You Parenting The Adult Of The Future: A Practical Guide of 7 Life Skills Of The Future To Prepare Your Teenage And Child’.

She adds, “I didn’t feel like talking and I mostly did the bare minimum. I work from home, so I get to spend a lot of time with my daughters. That means though they know me equally well as I know them, so they immediately picked up I wasn’t feeling well. It was an opportunity to talk about death with them, so I did it when they were both ready to listen. I explained that two family members back home had passed away and that everyone is feeling sad about it, including me because I really loved them. I continued to explain that everyone feels differently when they are grieving and the way I was behaving was my way of mourning.”


Dealing with questions

The questions were bound to come – they came in a flurry of agitated asks. “My nine-year-old was more empathetic towards my feelings but my five-year-old didn’t ask any questions. She just gazed for a bit and then went back to what she was doing. Then, at night time after she had some time to process what I have told her she came downstairs and started asking all sorts of questions. ‘Where do people go when they die?’ ‘What happens to their body?’, ‘What happens to their family?’ and then one more question followed ‘You will not die, right mummy?’. I didn’t feel like answering that question for two reasons. Firstly, because I had a tiring and stressing day at work and secondly because that question was quite triggering for me. It is something I worry about, and I think every parent thinks and feels the same.


I always try to answer all my kids’ questions with honesty so I said: ‘Yes sweetie, I will die one day because all people do.

- Dina Dimitriou

“However, I always try to answer all my kids’ questions with honesty so I said: ‘Yes sweetie, I will die one day because all people do,” she says.


Early introductions

Death is immutable and yet, mortality is often the most avoided topic of conversations in homes. Perhaps because even the word is so inexorably linked to grief – something we all try to shield our young from. However, some experts call for the gentle introduction to the concept of death when a child is as young as three. “Starting at the age of three, when a child is normally more inquisitive about Nature, take opportunities to talk to children about dead flowers, trees, insects, or birds — it’s a way of teaching about death without the tragedy of personal loss. A child’s interest in and distant exposure to death may provide an opportunity to explain, for the first time, that all living things die and make room for new living things,” suggests Dr Haneen Jarrar, Child Psychologist at Dubai-based Cambridge Medical Centre.


Avoid terms such as "they are in a long sleep" or they "passed away", etc. This can create a fear of sleep, separation, etc.

- Bene Katabua

Don’t sugar-coat concepts such as death, agree doctors, as this can lead to anxiety as well as confusion. Bene Katabua, Educational Psychologist at Intercare Health Center in Abu Dhabi, says: “At around the age of four and five, children start to have an understanding of the finality of death. They start to understand that death is not like a holiday or a long nap. Before that, they don't easily grasp that the person will not return and that they will never see them again. So with young children under four, you can explain mortality very simply. Avoid terms such as "they are in a long sleep" or they "passed away", etc. This can create a fear of sleep, separation, etc. At this age, they think in a very concrete way so it's best to explain that they will not see this person again, but we can hold onto special memories.”

“As they get older, around the age of six, they start to understand that dead bodies can't do anything. They don't move, they don't breathe, they don't feel cold, etc. At times, around this age, they may start questioning if death only happens to some people or all people. With time, it will dawn on them that this is a universal experience and that all living things will eventually die. This depends on their life experience, of course. Some young children experience the death of loved ones early on and may start to have an understanding of this sooner than others,” she adds.


KEEP IT AGE APPROPRIATE

Dina Dimitriou, Coaching Psychologist, explains that death occurs in many ways — it can be anticipated, accidental, or sudden — and each instance and each encounter with grief is unique. So, each conversation you have with kids about death will need to be tailored to the specific circumstances around a loss. However, when discussing topics like mortality is also important to keep in mind a child’s age. Specifically: • Preschool children Kids aged three to five mostly see death as temporary, reversible, and impersonal. In stories they read or watch, characters who seem to die will often come back to life. There is no reason to try to explain further to them or change their mind since it is appropriate and expected for their age level to think this way. • Between the ages of five and nine At this age, most children begin to understand that all living things eventually die, and that death is final. However, they tend to believe it will not happen to them or their family or consider the idea that they can escape it. They may associate images like skeletons with death and some children at this age may have nightmares about such images • From nine through to adolescence Older children begin to understand fully that death is irreversible and that they too will die someday.


Anxiety is normal

When it comes to the ‘end of life’ conversation with a child, expect fear, anxiety and symptoms of being overwhelmed. This is normal. “Children may start to be clingier when you talk to them about mortality, or when they experience the death of loved ones. This is normal, and it's important to keep that conversation open so that they can express not only their fears but also what they understand. This may take several conversations to clear up misunderstandings and help to reassure them.

“It helps to remind children of how many people in their family and community care about them and are there for them. You also want to make sure that you assure them that you are taking care of your health, and their health and that taking care of our health helps our bodies stay strong,” says Katabua.


Wait to cross that bridge

However, not everyone believes one should speak about loss to the youngest ones. Ross Addison, Managing Director and Consultant Child and Adolescent Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) Therapist at Dubai-based Reverse Psychology, says: “It's hard to prepare any child or adult to manage the death of a loved one. Regardless of any preparation given, there's really no way of softening the trauma and distress that we feel after a loved one has passed away. Naturally in life we tend to experience grief without premeditating it. Many families have pets and this can be a subtle and normal way for young people to process loss and grief.


I've met with many children over the years that have developed anxiety traits because of worry about a parent or family member dying, and my opinion is that it's better to wait until it happens.

- Ross Addison

“I've met with many children over the years that have developed anxiety traits because of worry about a parent or family member dying, and my opinion is that it's better to wait until it happens rather than discussing death too early with a child. It creates unnecessary worry, stress and fear for a loss that may be very much in the future.

“Children will naturally start talking about death and what happens after we die from around the age of 10, and because of varying religious beliefs, parents may share their views on what happens after we pass away. This can both be reassuring, or traumatic, depending on the family religion. I tend to find it's better to wait for a child to bring up this topic before introducing it to them, unless you know that they have begun thinking about it but do not know how to speak about it, then you can start a gentle dialogue, discussing views and worries of what they may be wondering happens after we pass away.


TIPS FOR THE BIG CONVERSATION

OkAY, so you’ve decided to talk about death. Don’t know where to begin? Dr Haneen Jarrar, Child Psychologist at Cambridge Medical Centre, suggests: • Use a time when it is quiet. • You might want support from your partner or loved one, speak to them before you have the talk. • Try to avoid euphemisms like, 'She's in a better place,' because they can be scary or confusing for young children. • Talk to your child in a familiar spot, where they have a favourite toy nearby to help them feel comfortable. Then, as they're playing, be honest and concrete, even if it might sound a little cold: You could say, Abuelo died. When people die, their body stops working and they can't eat, walk, or play anymore. And you won't be able to see them.

Starting at the age of three, when a child is normally more inquisitive about nature, take opportunities to talk to children about dead flowers, trees, insects, or birds — it’s a way of teaching about death without the tragedy of personal loss.

- Dr Haneen Jarrar


Cultural roadblocks?

Katabua says: “It is common for people to avoid processing life's difficulties - with loss and grief being some of the most difficult experiences that people experience. Some cultures emphasise the fragility of life, and encourage song and stories about mortality from a young age. In some cultures, young children witness births and they are also involved in preparing bodies for the dead. In other cultures, the idea of loss is incredibly private and is rarely discussed.

“Because this is universal, it is important for it to be discussed. It's important that children have an understanding of mortality that is honest, easy to understand and not so frightening. By not talking about it, they may start to create their own narratives, influenced by friends, media, nightmares, etc. which can have much more harmful impact than having a few uncomfortable conversations.”


Death is a given, despair is not – healing begins with understanding and talks.