When helping to support a child who is grieving the death of a loved one, it may feel kinder to try to soften the language and say that the person who has died “fell asleep and did not wake up,” “was really sick,” or that “we lost them.” I have found using concrete language – saying the words dead, died, and death – can help children process what happened.
Here is how gentle language can result in difficulties for children.
Children are often concrete thinkers.
When you say someone who has died “fell asleep and did not wake up” they may become fearful of sleeping and of others sleeping.
When you say someone who has died “was really sick” rather than explaining what the illness was in developmentally appropriate language, they may become fearful when themselves or others become ill.
When you say that “we lost them,” they may become panicked if even briefly they or someone else gets lost as the person that died never returned.
Instead, you might say the person died in their sleep because they had a long-standing health issue which was (name of the specific health issue).
You might say the person who died was really sick with (name the specific illness) and there was no more medicine or treatments that could help them.
You might say that the person died.
Then it would be helpful to ask them if they have any questions about what you just told them.
Then try to answer any questions that may arise in honest and developmentally appropriate ways. When we do not give the answers to questions that children have, they will guess to try to fill in the gaps and this can lead to more anxiety. Whenever possible, try to use concrete language.
If they do not have any questions at that time, let them know that you are always available to talk more about this if any questions may come up for them later.
Let them know that you are here to talk about whatever questions they may have.
What if the death was due to a drug overdose or suicide?
This is a question I often get asked, “Is my child too young to hear about that?” or “Will this increase the likelihood that they may become suicidal one day?” One of the risk factors for suicide is if there has been a suicide in your family system. That is only one of many risk factors. I understand your concerns. You know your child best. Follow your intuition on what is best for your family.
I sometimes suggest, depending on the family, to talk about how the person who died was struggling with mental health and was not able, for whatever the reason may be, to get the help they needed to survive. This is why it is so important for us to talk about where we are at with our mental health and get support. If your child is struggling with mental health challenges already then first please get them connected with support for that.
There is often free support through local hospices or family support services. If you are in British Columbia and would like to find the nearest grief support services to you, connect with the BC Bereavement Helpline. If you are looking for a family services program near you call 8-1-1 to locate services in your area or visit HealthLink BC.
Or if you have benefits, funding, or you can afford to pay for counselling support, then there are private practice clinicians like myself that can provide an extra layer of support. Here are a couple directories to look for the support that will fit best for your family if you live in British Columbia: BC Play Therapy Association and BC Association of Clinical Counsellors.