How do you explain death to a 3-year-old and 5-year-old? I was given a few key guidelines, but I continue to learn and seek advice on this massively intimidating topic.
I think the most important thing about talking to your children about death is simply that you try — and you try to tell them the truth, as simply as possible.
- Avoid using euphemisms – they just confuse children. Speak in simple and direct language to explain what happened: Tinsley died because her body stopped working.
- Listen to them. Invite them to talk about their feelings and ask questions. Check in often with them so they know it is safe to talk about feeling sad or having big feelings they don’t understand.
- Encourage them to express their emotions verbally or in other ways, like drawing, writing, dramatic play, etc. Sometimes play-acting death or a funeral is helpful for them.
- Ask if they want to give Tinsley a present (at the grave or make a memorial)
- Reassure them they are safe. The boys need to feel safe and hear specifically that they aren’t going to die. Reinforce that their bodies work –what happened to Tinsley can’t happen to them because they are already out of my tummy.
- Give them a special cuddle toy that is associated with Tinsley.
- Invite, but don’t force them, to participate in family rituals, such as going to the cemetery.
- Cry with them. It is healthy for them to see us express our emotions– but try not to wail uncontrollably in front of them.
- Pray with them.
- Reassure them that we are okay. They need to know Mommy and Daddy are okay, even though we are sad. Being sad and crying does not mean that we aren’t able to take care of them.
- Give them age-appropriate language, which is different for a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. The younger one needs one simple message to repeat: Baby Tinsley is not going to come home because she is in Heaven with God now. The older one can handle harder concepts if he prompts it. Baby Tinsley’s body is here at the cemetery but her soul is in Heaven with God. It’s okay that he doesn’t understand that yet — we are giving him the concept to process and think about — and equipping him with the language he needs to ask questions when he is ready.
- Expect them to become angry at other things. Anger is the most accessible emotion for them right now.
- The boys will process Tinsley’s death in their own time and way, and it will be an ongoing process. Expect them to ask questions about Tinsley for weeks, months and years to come that is in line with their cognitive development.
Behavioral changes that are common for grieving children (see *Gone Too Soon” Sherri D. Wittwer)
- Physiological difficulties – disturbances in eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom; body distress such as stomachaches, headaches
- Regression – they return to a behavior, like thumb sucking or temper tantrums
- Fears – normal fears can intensify, such as fear of the dark, going to sleep, your leaving
- Emotions- outbursts of sadness, anger, crying, anxiety. Older children may start having problems at school
Here are a few examples of how my sons reacted:
James, my younger son, started pretending often that he ‘had a baby in his tummy’ by stuffing a teddy bear under his shirt. This seemed to happen in the moments when I had ‘temporarily forgot’ about her, or was at least not drowning in the sorrow. I would feel angry he had interrupted my brief period of relief…
JW asked what James did with the teddy bear after he ‘gave birth’ to it. I said normally he would just toss it to the side and forget about it. She suggested this mirrored his understanding of what happened to Baby Tinsley–she didn’t have an ending in his mind. She was just born and sort of… gone. So I helped him finish the story of his teddy bear by explaining where Baby Tinsley went after she came out of my tummy. He hasn’t pretended to be pregnant since I gave him the ending to her story.
About 7 weeks after Tinsley died, James asked about the seemingly endless supply of flowers on our kitchen table (family was wonderful about sending flowers frequently because I liked to bring them to Tinsley when I visited, which was every day in the first couple months). I said they were for Baby Tinsley, and it was like a rocket went off in his little body as he exclaimed, “I don’t like Baby Tinsley! I don’t like her ever, ever, EVER!!” I understand now he was upset because Tinsley was making me sad, which was confusing, and he didn’t want me to be sad.
About 9 weeks after she died, James would yell at me and even hit me if I started to cry. He just couldn’t take seeing me sad anymore. This was actually a beautiful instinct of a son to protect his mother.
Charlie, my older son, became extremely anxious and didn’t want to be alone in any room. He said he wasn’t scared of anything but he didn’t want to be by himself… he would constantly come into whatever room I was in, even if I was just down the hall. He had to be with me. It occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t scared that he’d be okay alone, he was scared about me being alone, sensing that I was very upset. So instead of telling him he was safe and protected, I started telling him I was safe. This seemed to reduce his anxiety.
Charlie asked if Tinsley cried in Heaven….Rev. Matt suggested saying that yes, she misses us but she is cared for in Heaven. And that maybe yes, sometimes she is sad, just like sometimes we are sad. And remember, we are not either sad or happy. We can all be both at the same time.
Rev Matt suggested I honor the concreteness of his 5-year-old, literal world in his questions about the afterlife– but leave room for his cognitive growth. So include language that doesn’t create hard and fast rules in his mind about the afterlife (because that will evolve). For example, “We don’t know everything about Heaven, but we trust it is wonderful” to accompany a comforting, concrete answer “Yes she cries, but Mother Mary holds her and takes care of her in Heaven.”
At about 13 weeks after Tinsley died, James pointed to my breast and asked “Baby Tinsley in there?” I confusedly shook my head, no, Baby Tinsley is in Heaven with God. Then he said, “But that is baby Tinsley’s milk,” still pointing to my breast. I said, yes but she is in Heaven with God…
At the 19 week mark, Charlie randomly blurted out to me, “I love you so much I don’t want you to die.” I asked him why he was worried and he said because of baby Tinsley. I reminded him that everyone is safe right now and that God loves him. Because I just don’t know what else to say.
Some of my ‘repeat messages:’
Tinsley’s body stopped working while she was in my tummy. You are already out of my tummy and you are safe.
Tinsley is in Heaven with God.
No, Baby Tinsley is not going to come home, but she is safe in Heaven.
We visit Tinsley here (at the cemetery) to remember how much we love her. But she is already in Heaven with God.
**Every night we include Tinsley in our prayers so they integrate the knowledge that they have a sister, she is just already in her Heavenly form.**
Books for Children:
- Something Happened: A Book for Children and Parents Who Have Experienced Pregnancy Loss
- The Story Of… (personalize)
- Water Bugs and Dragon Flies: Explaining Death to Young Children (a coloring book)
- A Parent’s Guide to ‘Draw It Out:’ Supporting Your Grieving Child
Toddlers have trouble understanding the idea of finality. We felt like she understood Audrey was dead but not necessarily comprehending that she wouldn’t ever be back.
…as a general rule they were typical preschoolers in that the world appeared black-and-white. Traffic lights are either red or green. They are trying so hard to grab hold of “the rules of life” that they have a hard time digging around the areas that aren’t’ simple. While you don’t want to overwhelm your child with details, do include them in the knowledge you have available.
Instead of saying, “How are you feeling?” I would suggest, “It seems like you’re kind of sad today. Do you want to tell me about it?”
Children are much more likely to express difficult feelings when they are somewhat busy with something else.
They know when you’re sai, and the more you alienate them from your emotions, the more you tell them they shouldn’t either. Tell them you’re sad. Tell them you wish the child were still alive. Tell them that sometimes at night you cry too because you don’t understand why it had to happen. By being transparent, you will show your children that you can handle their feelings, and they will be much more likely to share their hearts with you.
School-aged children will probably ask more questions about the possibility of dying themselves. They realize that this enemy can now strike, and to them nobody is safe. Make sure you allow your child to express his/her feelings without dismissing them. It doesn’t help to say, “Oh, don’t worry about that.”
Try as hard as you can to keep your family’s routines intact. The need to follow a normal routine also includes being consistent with discipline. Many times we want to go easy on our kids because we feel like they are acting out against the situation, but the reality is that they will feel more secure when they see that the boundaries lines haven’t shifted.
Children who have lost a sibling need constant reminders that they are just as special as the child who is gone.
Running at the Star Legacy Foundation’s NY Metro Chapter 5K in April 2018. They knew they were running for their sister.