As the weather warms up and more people are vaccinated, families are cautiously making social arrangements like birthday parties and playdates for kids again. However, this overdue reunion in the midst of a deadly pandemic could prove to be a somber affair for some children.
In the United States, an estimated 37,300 to 43,000 children experienced a parent dying of COVID-19, according to a research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics. That number does not include kids who lost their nonparental primary caregivers. In a pre-pandemic world, children facing loss might have taken solace in their peer-support system or rituals like wakes or memorials to help them grieve. But with the banning of large gatherings, mandatory quarantine, remote schooling, and social distancing, children have been further isolated from the support they need.
“The statistic is so devastating and heartbreaking,” says Carolyn Spiro, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. “Death and grieving are universal, but COVID has added another layer because it also disrupted so much of how we mourn.”
As we integrate back into society, your child will likely encounter someone—a friend, a teacher, a neighbor—who has suffered a loss. Death is a tough subject to talk about, even for adults. And though our first instinct might be to shield our little ones from pain, understanding the concept of death and knowing how to cope with it are vital in their developmental growth.
“In our culture, we can be ‘death phobic,’” says Juli Fraga, a licensed psychologist in San Francisco. “But normalizing death and talking about it just like we talk about love can normalize grief and tells kids it's OK to discuss hard things.”
Here are some tips on how to approach the topic of death with children—and how your child could provide valuable support to their friends in need.
Bringing up the subject of death
Ideally, you should start the conversation of death before a significant event has happened. But even if you’re bringing it up to let a child know that something has happened to a friend’s loved one, a natural way of doing that is to show how death relates to the cycle of life.
“Children see ‘death’ all the time, especially in nature, with insects, plants, and fruit,” says Cori Jill Bussolari, associate professor in the counseling psychology department at University of San Francisco. “These are benign ways to begin to describe the process of what’s occurring.”
For example, point out a wilted flower and say, “This dried flower has died. This means that it can no longer drink water or grow.” This process is especially helpful for those younger than seven, who have a hard time comprehending the concept of mortality.
Another idea is to pick out an age-appropriate book that can help start the conversation. “Having a familiar character from books who’s experiencing loss and grief can help kids understand this challenging subject,” says Steve Herman, author of The Sad Dragon: A Dragon Book About Grief and Loss.
For older children, parents should have a calm and direct conversation about the topic. Ask them if they’ve heard of the word “death” and if they know what it means. Finding out what they already know gives you the opportunity to debunk incorrect information. State the reasons for death as plainly as possible.
“When it comes to bringing up the subject of death, we tend to shy away from the finality of it in order to guard our children’s feelings,” says Maria Evans, an L.A.-based marriage and family therapist, parent coach, and co-author of Find Calm: Simple Tools to Help Children Cope in an Unpredictable World. “But general terms or euphemisms—like ‘they passed away’—can scare or confuse children.”
Parents also shouldn’t be afraid to use words like “death” or “die,” which underscores that this is permanent process. “The idea of impermanence is one that may take some time for children to understand, but the reality is that all things come to an end at some point,” Bussolari says. “The more that death is talked about, in a healthy and matter-of-fact way, the less abrupt and scared children will feel when it eventually happens to someone they know.”
Evans adds that simple language related to body functions helps as well: “You could say, ‘When a person dies, their body stops working. They no longer walk, sleep, talk, or eat. They don’t feel any pain.’”
Behaving around people who have suffered a loss
If your child knows someone who’s coping with the loss of a loved one, first help them empathize with what that person might be feeling: fear, anger, confusion, or sadness. Tell kids they might be withdrawn and not say a thing, or they might share the news in front of the whole class.
Your child might think someone mourning a loss just wants to be left alone. Instead, encourage them to continue to reach out and invite a grieving friend to whatever activities they’d typically be doing together. “We don’t want the children who are grieving to feel that they’re ‘different,’” Spiro says. “We want them to know that they’re still loved, supported by, and connected to their friends and their communities. This is more important than ever after a loss.”
Prepare your child about what they might experience before visiting a friend who experienced a recent death in the family. “This might look something like, ‘Today we’re going to visit Jennifer. She might have different feelings: She might cry, she might be very quiet, or she might just play with you like she normally does. Because her mom died, she might want to talk about it,’” says Find Calm co-author Ashley Graber, a marriage and family therapist and parent coach in Los Angeles. “Then, ask them, ‘Do you have any questions?’”
Children, like most people, might also be unsure of how to behave around others experiencing loss, especially if they’re afraid they might make the other person feel worse. “[Children] may be confused about how the person is feeling, they may not know what to say, or they may be overwhelmed by their own emotions,” Bussolari says. Reassure your child that it’s not their job to make the grieving person not be sad.
“Children might want to fix the problem and make things better,” Spiro says. “Let them know that they’re not there to take away the pain. We want to teach our kids to be patient and kind. Being present for a person who has been through a loss can be so comforting and validating.”
If they’re unsure of what to say, Bussolari recommends things like “Thanks for sharing that with me” or “I’m glad to be here with you.” She also advises letting children know it’s OK to say, “I don’t know what to say” and, if they want to, adding “but I’m here to listen if you just want to talk.” Above all, encourage kids to simply follow their friend’s lead: “Whatever you want to do. We can just play or talk or sit quietly and read.”
And if your child is nervous about the visit, reassure them that it’s OK to feel that way. “Encourage them to bring something comforting for themselves, like a stuffed animal or a favorite sweatshirt,” Graber says.
Helping kids feel safe
If the conversation around death is causing your child anxiety, don’t dismiss their worries with comments like, “Don’t worry about that” or “That will never happen.”
“Kids need to feel seen and heard,” Bussolari says. “Listening to their concerns without minimizing them will help them process their feelings.”
Even though you shouldn’t play down the inevitability that we’ll all experience death in our family or social circle someday, we also want kids to feel safe. For example, do not associate sleep and death by saying, “Jason’s grandpa went to sleep and never woke up.” That could cause them to develop a phobia toward bedtime. Instead, give them space to express their feelings without avoiding the topic.
“Avoidance makes anxiety grow,” Fraga says. “Validate the fear or anxiety.” That said, if a child is having trouble eating or sleeping, it might be time to reach out to a professional for guidance.
For most children, death is a new and unfamiliar experience. So it’s important for the adults in their lives to help guide them through understanding that death is part of the cycle of life and let them know that their feelings—whatever they may be—are valid.
“The path to understanding loss and grief is lifelong,” Evans says. “And above all we want to normalize all feelings that come along with our experience.”