As parents and caregivers, our instincts are to protect. Breaking bad news to your children, regardless of the type of loss it pertains to, is a very hard thing to do. There’s no way around it but through it. Here are some things that might help.
WHAT TO DO…
Stick to the facts, and say you don’t know when you don’t know. You may think that hiding the truth will protect them, but it rarely works that way. Don’t use euphemisms.
Don’t assume what they do or don’t know. Candid facts leave less room for guessing and incorrect interpretation. Ask if they have any questions and clarify where there may have been miscommunication or misunderstanding.
Let them know you can sit with their grief. Answer their questions the best you can in an honest, age-appropriate way. Don’t judge their response, even if it may be different than what you expect or think is appropriate.
WHAT NOT TO DO…
Don’t sugarcoat it.
Using flowery language and talking around the main point will just confuse them. Acknowledge that this news is sad, disappointing, etc. Use words like “dead” and “died,” and depending on their age and understanding say how they died. We know it’s hard to feel like there is any good news to share in the world today. It’s challenging talking to kids even when the news is good! Navigating conversations about death, especially when the death is by suicide, homicide, or overdose may seem overwhelming. You may not know where to begin, but here are some starting points to consider.
Don’t scare them.
Starting the conversation with “I have some bad news” or “you should sit down” creates more anxiety, especially for someone who has been on the receiving end of bad news before. Get right to the point by saying, “I need your attention to talk about something.”
Don’t jump to the silver lining.
Allow them to sit in the muck. Quickly changing the subject or trying to put a positive spin on it tells them it’s not OK to feel what they’re feeling. Similarly, if they don’t have an overt response or questions, don’t assume they aren’t internalizing the news. They may just need time to process. Be sure to follow up the next day and after some time, and always remind them they can revisit the conversation with you at any time.