Whether you question telling your child too much about a loved one’s terminal illness, or you want to protect them from the details of a stigmatized loss, we’re here to remind you that honesty is always the best policy, and they CAN handle the truth. Here are some things to remember when communicating honestly with children about death:
- Kids know more than we give them credit for. That doesn’t mean you failed as a caregiver by not protecting them enough. It does mean you can trust them to handle more than you might assume.
- They deserve the truth because they deserve to process and grieve their loss fully. Dishonesty leading up to the death can lead to anger or resentment that a child didn’t have the chance to say goodbye or perhaps wasn’t allowed to. Dishonesty after the death can create a legacy of shame, secrecy, and mistrust.
- Telling the whole story allows your child to grieve alongside the rest of the family. Imagine them finding out a piece of the puzzle years later when they are “old enough”, and they have to adjust their bereavement.
- Not talking about the death with your child teaches them that death is not safe to talk about. Children are innately capable of grieving, at times more capable than adults, if we allow them the opportunity.
- Allow opportunities for participation in planning the funeral or other end of life celebrations as they are comfortable.
- Model healthy coping by opening up the lines of communication. Be prepared for your child to revisit questions they may have about the person or the way they died.
- The best way to protect your child is to offer comfort, a safe space to express themselves, and the opportunity to ask questions.
Gayle Brumley is an MSW, and the Camp Manager at Experience Camps. She is a Certified Child Life Specialist and holds a Certificate of Thanatology from the Association for Death Education and Counseling. She has over 10 years of professional experience in the non-profit camp sector with children and young adults with developmental disabilities and serious illnesses.