More and more parents and caregivers are looking for tools for talking to kids about grief. This topic is all around us nowadays. It’s important not only that we educate ourselves on the topic of grief, but also that we do the personal work so we are ready for these difficult conversations. Here are three things that can help you when talking to kids about grief:
1. Know Your Comfort Level
It is so important that before we dive into talking about grief that we look at our own comfort level on the topic. I compare this topic to talking to kids and teens about sex. If we are not comfortable, it will show, and it can lead to more issues than intended. Reflect on how grief was talked about and modeled growing up for you. Think about grief related to death, major life changes, moves, losses, major negative events occurring in your community, and even positive events that created big changes (like weddings, getting a new sibling or starting at a new school). Did people talk about them? Were people allowed to show their emotions openly and for how long? Did you feel safe to ask questions or share how you were being impacted?
These reflection questions will help you already uncover some healing that may need to happen from your past. It’s important that you are honest about this with your child: “Mommy didn’t grow up talking about grief in her family, but it’s important we do in our family. I may not have all the answers, but we can figure them out together.” “Dad didn’t grow up in a home where we talked about how we felt or what was bothering us. I want to make sure in our family that doesn’t happen. Let’s talk about this major event coming up and what you think and feel about it.”
See how easy it can be to be honest and not need to have all the answers? We often get reactive when we don’t know what to say, but there is no need. Grief impacts us all differently and you can work together as a family to read books and watch movies that help you learn how to talk about grief much easier.
2. Talk on Their Level
I have seen this happen many times in my therapy office. A child comes in with their parents to talk about a grief topic, and the parents intellectualize the topic when talking to their kids. Why? Go back to number one above. They are not comfortable with their own emotions and so they stay in fact mode. This doesn’t help your child feel like they can express their feelings and thoughts. When we intellectualize a topic, we almost talk down to anyone who thinks or feels differently. Go back to number one above and do the work to figure out what healing needs to happen so you are more comfortable talking to kids about grief.
The key really is to know your child. Emotionally they may not be as developed as they sound so remember to check in with their feelings and thoughts. You could get two conflicting answers as they share what they are experiencing inside, and that is normal too. Grief carries a variety of thoughts and emotions with it that can’t always be put into words. I always encourage parents to ask what their child thinks and in a separate question what they feel. Feeling face charts are great for these conversations when your child doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to talk about what they are feeling. Let’s be honest, sometimes as adults we need that chart too!
3. Talk While Doing
Major tip/trick when wanting someone to talk more openly about a topic with you: Get them doing something while they are talking. Color, play a game, go for a walk, or play a sport together. All of these activities help relax the mind to think and share more clearly. Don’t start the activity with your child and immediately probe them with questions. Give it 10 minutes or so to allow their brains (and yours) to relax and then start to talk. Share that you want to talk about the event or experience that is creating grief. Let them share to the level they want. Ask questions but don’t fall into 20 questions by asking a ton of questions all at once. You want this to feel like a normal, natural conversation so they understand the topic is exactly that: normal and natural.
Some kids don’t need to have long, drawn out conversations. They may just need you to bring it up a few times in the week to let them know you are there and able to chat when they want to. Other kids will let it all out, and it might create an emotional response in you. Take a deep breath. My daughter at five years old would ask questions about my mom, who had died a year prior, and it would catch me off guard. I would tear up and have to take a deep breath before responding. It’s ok for them to see you emotional. Again, grief is a normal and natural experience, and the more we allow our kids to see us on our own grief healing journey, the more they will be willing to talk about and express their grief in healthier ways.
If you are interested in learning more about talking to kids about grief, I have an eBook with support videos to guide you on grief surrounding death, loss, moving, separation and divorce and major events occurring in your community. You will learn ways to tailor your conversations based on your kid’s age, and the support videos that come along with it have some for your kids too. Check out this resource: