How Grieving Kids Can Respond to “Tell Me about Your Parents”

Every person who has experienced the death of a parent will have to navigate some version of the question, “Tell me about parent(s)” or “Why isn’t your dad here?”, or “How come I’ve never met your mom?”’ Everyone will have a different answer, and there isn’t specifically a right or wrong response.  For many, it depends on who’s asking.  And where.  And why.

Why it’s important to plan for the questions

One of the ways people get to know each other is asking about their families, and that’s true through childhood and adulthood. Our society is not a grief-informed place, and many people find responding with something short and simple is a good way to test the waters of how their sharing is received by others. My hope is your child hasn’t had to experience others dismissing their grief or, worse, making fun of them for it (though unfortunately that’s a common occurrence), and can make them hesitant to want to share anything again.

There’s always a chance your child will have to navigate the parent questions, particularly if they have recently started attending a new school, or are doing a new extracurricular. Or maybe you’ve moved to a new city or town and everything’s new.  

It’s okay for your child to avoid sharing

When asked about their parents, grieving kids sometimes dismiss the question or refuse to talk about their person. While it can feel like they don’t want to remember, or are purposefully trying to forget, in many cases it’s simply a matter of not feeling comfortable, in that moment, with that audience. Know that the way your child answers adults and family friends may be much more reserved than with close peers.

Another reason kids may avoid sharing is because they do not want to cry publicly, which people of all ages can probably relate to. Instead of assuming to know why your child isn’t sharing, ask them in a gentle, curious tone. 

You can then reassure your child that it’s perfectly okay if they don’t want to share. Try something like, “You don’t owe anyone your story, and you don’t have to manage anyone else’s feelings.”

Practicing helps if they want to share

It is also often helpful to create a safe space where your child can practice answering difficult questions.  At Experience Camps, kids and teens have the opportunity to share their stories with safe audiences of peers and adults who also understand grief; it’s a special community where everyone “gets it.”

After-school grief groups can be important places for kids and teens to practice language that feels comfortable for them, and the group aspect means there’s also the component of experiencing reactions from others.  Not everyone has access to summer camp or school groups, and so another place children can practice can be with you, in the mirror, or writing in a notebook.

Young girl writing in journal

It can be helpful for kids to write responses for practice.

It can be helpful for kids to hear you model how you handle it when someone asks you about your person who died. You can say something to your child like, “When people ask me about Dad, I tell them that I love him very much, and I wish it wasn’t true, but he’s been dead for two years.” Or “When people ask about Dad and I don’t want to talk about it, I say ‘my family’s good, I hope yours is too’ and walk away.”

While some kids and teens find it helpful to practice, know that it is entirely possible they won’t want to practice with you–or within your earshot. If you can be patient enough to give them space, there’s a decent chance you’ll end up being someone they do end up feeling comfortable talking to; it just may take some time.

Here are some starter responses you can share with kids: 

  • Short and sweet: “He’s dead, I really miss him” or “She died in October.”
  • Blunt and factual: “He’s dead, and I don’t like talking about it” or “She got sick and she died, and now it’s different and weird at home.”
  • Add something after sharing that their person died: “He was my soccer coach and my best friend.” She loved chocolate chip cookies and going to the beach.” “He had dark brown hair and bright blue eyes.”
  • Change the subject:  Sometimes the option that feels the safest is to avoid or ignore the question, and some may pretend they didn’t hear it in the first place. “Did you watch last night’s basketball game?” “I like your shoes, those are my favorite color.” “What’s your family doing for the holiday?”

How they share will change

Know that grief changes as kids navigate different development stages and so will the way they share with others. The way your child responds to “Tell me about your parents” in fourth grade will likely not be the same as in eighth grade (or possibly even a few weeks later). 

Grief doesn’t have time limits or deadlines. People need different things over time, though something many grievers–especially kids and teens–can agree upon is the need for places and spaces where their feelings are valid and heard. Home can be an important place to cultivate those feelings of safety to carry forth into the outside world.

Author Kelia BerginKelia Bergin (she/her) been a Grief Specialist with Experience Camps since 2017 and is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC).  She’s worked with grieving children, teens, and adults at camp, in after-school settings, and with a hospice, and currently has a full-time role in a college counseling center in Massachusetts. Kelia loves camp for all sorts of reasons, with personal highlights being the midweek campfire and “Slime Day.”