Reading Time: 3 minutes

(Post 6 of 33 in my 16-hour shift for the Secular Student Alliance Blogathon.)

10:30 am EDT

Several friends have asked that I address talking to kids about death. This is an enormous topic, but I’ll touch on some key points.

I’ve received several emails over the years that are variations on this theme: A secular parent tells me his or her child, often age 4-5, sometimes older, is about to lose an especially beloved grandparent, and “I’m not sure how to handle it — we’ve never really talked about death.”

Step 1. Build a time machine.

Okay, that’s not helpful, unless you have Steve Hawking and John Frink as Facebook friends. But ideally you will have prepared your kids for years by talking about death in natural, unforced ways, from the dead bird in the backyard to walks in cemeteries to books (like Charlotte’s Web) and movies (like Tuck Everlasting). Call it mortality literacy.

Despite popular wisdom, kids are often better able than adults to handle the discussion, in part because their grasp of death is not yet fully concrete. The facts that death is universal (i.e. applies to every living thing) and final are realizations that only gradually take hold. The window before they do is an opportunity to ease your child forward in coming to grips with our most difficult reality.

When talking about comforting a grieving child, mainstream grief experts generally discuss religious consolations in a slightly cursory and sometimes even embarrassed way. After offering solid, research-based suggestions, they typically tack on a coda, like, “Depending on your family’s religious tradition, you may wish to explain a person’s death to your children in terms of God’s will or an afterlife. But be aware that such statements as ‘she went to be with Jesus’ can lead to feelings of confusion and abandonment, while ‘God took her to be with him’ can cause feelings of anger followed by guilt and fear.’” Worst of all is any suggestion that the child should NOT be sad (“You should be happy! She’s with Jesus now”) which invalidates the child’s natural grief. Bad thing.

I remember well-meaning people saying that to me when my dad died. I was 13, and I wanted to kill them. (I didn’t do it.)

Some general guidelines for helping kids deal with the loss of a loved one:

Be honest. Don’t pretend that it isn’t one of the most difficult events of their lives. Validate their pain and grief. Tell the child it is not just “okay” to be sad, it’s good. The sadness honors the person who died, showing that she loved her very much, and expresses real feelings.

Share your own emotions. Keeping a stiff upper lip in front of the kids is no help whatsoever for a grieving child. Let her know that you are grieving too—or better yet, show it.

Be patient. There’s no healthy or effective way to rush a grief process.

Listen. Invite the child to share what she is feeling if she wants to. If not, respect her silence.

Reassure. You can’t bring back the deceased person or pretend he or she is somewhere else. But you can and should do everything possible to make the child feel personally safe, loved, and cared for.

Keep the loved one alive in memory. The sudden absence of someone who died is the most painful part of it. Avoiding the person’s name or not talking about him/her can make that sense of absence much worse. Share memories of the person and use her name. If tears come, remember that the goal is not to avoid sadness, but to help the child work through the intense grief. Let her be the one to tell you if a conversation is too painful.

Great resource: Maria Trozzi’s Talking With Children About Loss.

There’s more, but I’m out of time! Donate to SSA in the sidebar!

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.