There is no perfect way to tell a child that someone they know has died. Even though there is no perfect way to share this news, there are things that parents and caregivers can do to help the child process difficult news in the healthiest way possible. Generally speaking, it is advisable to be open and direct with children and to only provide details to the extent the child asks.
Find a time in the day with few distractions where the adult(s) can sit down with the child. Begin the conversation by telling them who has died. Depending on the child’s age, development and prior experience they may have different understandings of what death is. I advise checking in with the child about their understanding of death and to explain what death means and how you, as the adult, understand death. Different children may have varying responses to being told someone has died. Understand that there is not one right or wrong way to grieve, and that a child will process this in the time and way that works for them.
It is important to let the child know that it is normal and even healthy to have a range of emotions in response to death, particularly tragic losses. Share with the child that feeling sad, angry and/or scared after a loss is common. It can be helpful to share with the child how you are feeling, and reassure the child your family will get through this together. Reassuring the child that they and their family are healthy and safe can minimize potential anxieties for a young child.
After telling a child that someone has died, it is important to build time into the schedule for family time. Perhaps make a list of things and activities people can do to help themselves feel better, and work some of these activities into your schedule. Ask your child if they have any questions about what you have told them, and allow them to ask if they do. Remind your child that you want them to come to you with any questions, worries or big feelings they may have going forward.
As always, the team at Westwood Mansfield Pediatric Associates is here for support.