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What to do (and not to do) when talking to children about death

Parenting

What to do (and not to do) when talking to children about death

What to do (and not to do) when talking to children about death

Last night I sat down with my children and told them about my upcoming trip to Lahore with their dad for something important. My second born asked which airline we would use and when I told him the name, he immediately asked us to change it since that particular airline had had an air crash exactly eight years ago and I had lost one of my friends in it.

She and I had become friends since our kids attended the same school and we saw each other almost daily.  The conversation with my son brought back a plethora of memories from the time I found out about my friend’s passing away in the crash and I recalled how difficult it had been for me to process losing her. She had been a great mother to her own three boys; and it had been so difficult for me to break the news of her tragic demise to my boys (aged seven and four then) who were friends with her children.

I remembered how I had tried to pull myself together and hugged my children tightly. My younger one had been quick to ask what was wrong and initially I had denied it but later on I told them what had happened. I can’t recall their exact reaction since it happened eight years ago but last year fate brought me back to the same junction and I had to break the news of not one but two deaths and that too of people who had been very close to all of us. And although last year my boys were older – 14, 11, 7 and 3 years old respectively, death is never easy to handle, especially, if it is of someone very dear to you.

One of them had been our young driver, Yasir, who had served us for six years and watched my boys grow up. We had been away for vacation when the poor soul was diagnosed with cancer; he passed away within a span of one month after his diagnosis – a week before I was supposed to leave for Hajj.

The other person we lost was nothing less than a sister to me. We had become friends since our boys were the same age and had been together in school since pre-nursery. Our friendship was more than a decade old and had survived two of my pregnancies and then two babies; her relocating to Lahore and then moving back to Karachi; my father being severely sick and she being there for me like a rock; our kids’ examination stress and post-examination celebrations; our kids’ mood swings and our own ups-and-downs; and so, so many tears and laughter. I can’t even put in words what we shared and how bereft I felt when she passed away and that too, a day before I was supposed to leave for Hajj.

I remember being at a complete loss – I was in denial myself, her two sons were at my place after they lost their mother so suddenly, my Hajj preps were still incomplete and I didn’t know how to tell my sons about her death, especially since they had been looking forward to having a ball with her while I was away for Hajj.

So many questions…

So many unfulfilled promises…

But as hard as it was, I knew I had to break the news to my children. And these are some of the Dos and Don’ts I used to talk to my sons about death in general and death of a loved one in particular:

1. DO tell the truth

For the good and bad, social media is way faster than word-of-mouth nowadays. And so there is no way that children won’t find out. Stick to the facts as much as possible and omit the gory details.

2. DO answer their questions

Be patient and let them process the news. Tell them to come to you if they feel confused or have any questions that bother them.

3. DO teach them empathy and sympathy

Teach them how to help affected children and protect them from unnecessary questions by their peers. In my friend’s case, the father decided to take the children back to Lahore where their maternal and paternal families lived.

4. DO give as much reassurance as they need

I still remember how insecure my second born was when I left for Hajj in the midst of all this. He was so worried for us that he would message me constantly asking me to send him a short voice note just to let him know we were okay. But despite being busy with our Hajj rituals in Makkah, I made sure I answered him EVERY time. And if I knew that we might not have network availability in some areas, I would try to inform him beforehand to keep him at ease.

5. DO let the death be a form of lesson (if needed)

For instance, if you hear about someone losing their life in an accident due to reckless driving, you can emphasise the importance of staying safe and being responsible when on the road – not only for our own selves but for others too.

6. DO let them cry

Boys or girls, let them know that it’s acceptable to talk, cry and mourn for a loved one.

7. DO let them believe in the power of prayers and the Divine Decree

Deaths and births (and everything else) are by the order of the Almighty and no one can challenge them. Teach your children to accept and submit to God’s Will and that the BEST gift they can give a deceased person is in the form of prayers and Sadqa (charity).

While death is inevitable, there is no doubt that it is a sensitive topic and hence, there are certain Don’ts when talking about death, especially with children.

1. DON’T tell them about every death

We live in tough times where while social media and the news is rampant with celebrations and joys, it is also awash with death and tragic events. Even for us adults, death is difficult to digest, especially if it is sudden and/or the person dying was young. So, if your children don’t know the deceased, avoid telling them about it.

For instance, in the case of my driver, he had not been coming to work for a month since he was unwell and so, we didn’t say anything to our children about his demise initially. They probably assumed he was unwell or was working somewhere else. I broke the news to them once we returned from Hajj.

2. DON’T give details if it was a tragic accident

 It is enough for them to digest the news without going into the depth of how it happened.

3. DON’T expect them to act like adults

You can teach them to be empathetic towards their friends and protect them but you can’t expect them to take the place of an adult.

4. DON’T be angry with them if they experience anxiety or restlessness

Some children express their emotions well and may accept the reality of death relatively easily while others may end up having nightmares and need you to comfort them in the middle of the night. Hold them close as much as you can (day AND night) and allow them to sleep in your bedroom for a night or two. It will give some much-needed consolation to a child feeling lost and insecure.

5. DON’T whisper among yourselves as adults

Many of us talk in muted tones when there’s a tragedy or death in the family and then hush up if a child walks in. This not only makes them curious but it also makes them think that we are hiding something from them.


These are some things that helped me and my family cope with the death of loved ones. You might find some of these helpful when talking about death with your children depending on the circumstances, or you might have to resort to completely new means to approach the topic. My advice would be to think about how you would approach the discussion based on your family dynamics and the age of your children…because the reality is that death is the inevitable departure.

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A homemaker and mother to 4 boys of varying age groups, from a toddler to a teenager. An ex-teacher and diploma holder in dyslexia remedial teaching.

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