Talking With Children About the Death of a Loved One

It’s hard to know what to say to kids when someone they loved has died. We may wonder: Do they understand what happened? Will talking about it upset them more? Children need their parents and caregivers’ love and support to help them understand and process death. And parents and caregivers may need their church leaders’ assistance to navigate these difficult discussions.

As a children’s ministry leader, we know you want to help. So we asked Dave Flowers, a Marriage and Family Therapist (who also happens to be a follower of Jesus), to share some helpful guidelines for children’s ministry leaders to consider personally and to share with parents and caregivers, too. Here’s what Dave shared with us:

Recognize that death is confusing.

One of the most difficult experiences humans have is dealing with the death of a loved one. Not only are we left with the void of that person’s presence, but we are also left with our own unanswered questions. Though adults and children often have different questions about death, it’s important to recognize that we all feel something; we are all confused by it.

When talking to children about the death of a loved one, it may be helpful to consider these guidelines:

Begin the conversation about the death of a loved one.

Your conversation with the child could start like this:

  • “I’ve been thinking about [grandma] a lot lately. I was wondering, have you been thinking about her, too?”
  • “I was just thinking about that time we all went to the zoo and a giraffe ate her hot dog when she wasn’t looking. Do you remember?” (Share a positive memory.)
  • “You know, [grandma] taught me how to tie my shoes. Can you think of one thing she taught you?”
  • “What is something we could do as a family to keep remembering [grandma]?” If you have a difficult time thinking of something, try remembering some things that your loved one enjoyed. Maybe you could try a recipe for a dessert that he or she loved, or listen to music together that he or she enjoyed.
  • Sometimes, a question is not needed. A simple statement can allow the child to respond, if they are ready: “You know, when I was about your age, my grandma died. I remember how many questions I had about it, and I remember how much I missed her. I still do, sometimes.”

Acknowledge what you know about death.

Communicate with children in simple, concrete terms. For example:

  • “I’m crying because I’m sad.”
  • “I’m sad because your grandma died.”
  • “When someone dies, they don’t come back.”

When adults talk about death in abstract terms, it may be more comfortable for them, but can be confusing for a child. Telling kids that a loved one who has died is “asleep” can lead children to wonder what might happen when they fall asleep. Or statements like “Grandma is still watching over you, even though we lost her…” can not only be confusing, but frightening.

Instead, ask what the child already knows about what happened. He or she may have heard friends or other family members talking about it, and what was heard could be distressing or even inaccurate. Hearing kids’ thoughts gives adults an opportunity to comfort and to correct anything kids have heard that is untrue.

Wonder what you don’t know about death.

When children ask difficult questions about death, get comfortable with the “not knowing.” Adults can help children understand that there are things about death we know, and other things that are mysteries even for grown-ups.

But give kids this good news: As Christians, we can still experience grace, comfort, and peace in the midst of our confusion. We can be okay and trust God, and we may still not have an answer for it all.

Try these responses to kids’ wonderings:

  • “I don’t know for sure, but I believe God loves us and is with us.”
  • “I wonder about that, too. What do you think?”

These responses give kids the opportunity to process the loss in their own way. They also show kids that their thoughts and questions matter and are important to you.

Reassure kids.

We all need reassurance as we grieve. After all, someone we love was there, and now they’re gone. It hurts. We need hope from Jesus, and we need to know that though we ache now, our hearts will not always feel like this. We need to know that it’s going to be okay.

However they feel right now, assure kids that they won’t always feel like this. Grief changes over time. Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five distinct stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

People don’t always move through these stages in a linear fashion and they do not define everyone’s experience. But they are common. As their grown-up, help kids know that they aren’t the only one who has ever felt grief and loss. Others have, too. Together, you’ll get through this.

Lastly, a child may worry, “If this could happen to grandma, could it happen to my parent? What would I do? Who would take care of me? I don’t want that to happen!” Acknowledge the worry and assure kids that lots of people live very long, happy lives.  Then, together, think through all the people in their lives who take good care of them. (You could even pray and thank God for those people!)

Grieve with hope.

In the end, Christians do not “grieve like people who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). And yet, we do still grieve. It’s important that parents and caregivers recognize that hope and grief can exist together. Don’t rush kids (or yourself) through grief. As families walk through it, with God’s love supporting each step, they’ll find acceptance in their loss.

Looking for more ways to support families today? Take a look at Notes From Jesus for Families: What Jesus Wants Your Family to Know. This little book reminds families of all shapes and sizes that Jesus loves them, speaks to them, and wants to be a part of every minute of their busy family lives.

 

Dave Flowers is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern based in Franklin, TN.  Dave has a passion for helping families find healing from previous hurts, cope and move through current life difficulties, and prepare for a healthy future. He works with children and young adults who are dealing with trauma, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and grief/loss. As a parent himself, Dave understands that when their children struggle, parents struggle as well. So Dave provides support to parents who are navigating difficult challenges with their children. Dave is a contributor for Team Family, Group’s brand new family ministry resource, available Summer 2024.

 

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