Let Your Kid Talk About Their Dead Parent – Normalizing Grief

Last Updated on May 11, 2021 by Sarah Gallagher

Non-grievers are often shocked by how freely and easily our family talks about our connection with death. It happens all the time. They are afraid doing so could be damaging. But I vehemently disagree. Talking about their sky daddy validates their feelings, and it encourages mental health. This article explains why you should let your kid talk about their dead parent.

My son’s father died when he was 2 1/2. When kids ask him where his dad is (as they do all the time because they’re curious), he plainly says that he died. There’s always an intake of breath from the adults if they’re around, but the kids just are intrigued and ask what happened. The parents always step in at this point, and try to dissuade their kid, but then I always interrupt with an “no, it’s okay. We can talk about it. His dad’s heart got too sick and he died.”

kids need to talk about their dead parent

Why Parents Are Afraid of Talking About Death

  • Brings up uncomfortable feelings
  • Loss of control
  • Don’t want to damage their kids

It’s tough talking about death as it brings up all our own fears of mortality which are very uncomfortable to sit with. Heck, as a griever myself I don’t like these feelings, but I don’t have a choice. Humans naturally try to avoid their mortality, and so it makes perfect sense to avoid talking about something that could bring intense pain and distress. Our society isn’t the best at normalizing grief.

There’s also this fear that if their kids talk about death, it could mentally damage them. Scar them by talking about it too early in their development. Of course, parents don’t want to damage their kids. You won’t.

When a parent senses a conversation about death bubbling up in the playground, their first instinct is to shield their kids from the disturbing feelings burbling up in their own adult bodies. But kids don’t have the same sense of distress because they truly have no understanding of what death really is. It’s such a existential concept that their immature brains can’t grasp. In fact, it’s not until their 20’s when their grey matter has developed enough to even start to understand death.

So, though you may be anxious about talking about death with your kid, it’s your own uncomfortable feelings that you’ll be managing. The kids will be fine.

Related Post: Children Grieve Differently

Children Are Curious About Death

  • Naturally curious about their world
  • Need to know what happened to their parent
  • Magical thinking – learning the distinction of what they are in control of

Children are little sponges, soaking up all the information about their world as quickly as they can. They’re not going to understand everything yet, but that doesn’t stop them from trying!

Children are naturally curious, seeking out all the details about life – including death. And as hard as we might wish otherwise, they’re going to find out about it sooner or later. It’s inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be scary.

They are going to need to know what happened to their parent, how did they die? This is a question that seeks truth as well as comfort. They need to know whether it was their fault, or if they’re going to die next. It’s essential that when you talk to them, you speak plainly and clearly.

Be literal. Don’t say they “passed away”, “have gone away” or “are sleeping”. Otherwise your poor kid will be confused, will wait for hours at the door for them to come back, or will be terrified to go to sleep. Tell them the basic overview of how they died, without feeling obligated to reveal all of the details. My son didn’t need to know that his dad was hooked up to machines after his cardiac arrest for two days before we knew that he was brain dead. He just needs to know that his daddy’s heart got sick, stopped working, and his body died.

It’s also important that they know the truth, because often little kids will think they were responsible somehow. Kids are self-absorbed little creatures. They honestly believe that their ideas, thoughts, actions, or words can influence the course of events in the material world. This is called Magical Thinking (and isn’t just reserved for littles).

Clearly explaining the facts of how their parent died is important to help them learn the distinction of what they are in control of. They didn’t die because Timmy didn’t eat his carrots, or because Beatrice was a bad girl – they died because of reasons that had nothing to do with Timmy or Beatrice. And just because mommy or daddy died, doesn’t mean that it’s catching and the kids are next.

They’re Not Too Young To Know About Death

  • Death happens in nature all around us
  • Four year-olds are obsessed with death
  • Death is a part of life, just as grieving is a part of love

A common misconception is that kids are too young to know about death. All kids are affected by death: even infants know when a consistent parent is no longer around. Even if they can’t understand the concept, they know it exists.

Nature is abundantly clear that life and death are part of the natural cycle. The seasons make it plain with trees that shed their dying leaves, only to regrow new ones in the spring. Toddlers will squish an ant under their finger, fascinated when it stops moving, and will repeat this experiment on the next ant that wanders along. Dead birds or small mammals are common sights, even in the city streets. Death happens in nature all around us, and our curious kids do observe it.

Four year-olds are particularly obsessed with death. The “Why’s” of the three year-old gradually gets around to the eternally huge question. Kids are aware of absolutes, and death is the mother of them all. However, your toddler isn’t waxing philosophical on you – they’re simply trying out the concept that just as birth is the beginning of life, death is the end.

Death is a part of life, just as grieving is a part of love. You can’t have one without the other, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly normal.

Talking Is Healing

  • Talking about emotions help bring them to the surface
  • Validates their feelings

Kids have a special relationship with grief – they live with one foot in, and one foot out all of their childhood. It may seem that Billy is doing fine, having fun playing with the other kids, but then the next moment they’re a crying mess who can’t speak through all their snot. Our kids really can’t handle long periods of grief (yeah, I know it’s not fair that we adults can), and will easily jump in and out of grief.

When these waves of emotion hit, they can be especially scary for a child as it can totally take over their body. If a parent encourages repression of these emotions, then the child buries them deep inside and will develop substantial neurological problems.

By openly talking about their experiences, even if it’s the same story again and again and again, you’re helping develop neurological connections to understand what just happened. By bringing these powerful feelings to the surface, it releases the pain and turmoil that the child is dealing with.

Just as importantly, by acknowledging their deep feelings you are validating them. Grief can be very lonely when people don’t want to be there with you. A child needs to feel validated, and comforted to know that when they talk about their lost parent, it’s okay.

Sharing Brings Connections

  • They’re not alone with their grief
  • Sharing their knowledge with their peers makes them feel like an authority
  • Sharing experiences lets the kids understand each other, and bond

Just as we touched on the last point, when a child reaches out by talking about their dead parent, even just a casual “my dad’s dead” to a complete stranger, they are seeking connection.

Grieving can be a very lonely process, as it feels that you are the only one, ever, who has felt this way. Totally ridiculous realistically, but grief doesn’t know up from down. When kids want to talk about their dead parent, let them. Even if you can’t understand what they are going through, just listen. Acknowledge. Let them know they are not alone.

Now, let’s go back to the playground. Children are curious. They’re going to ask their peer, where’s their missing parent? Your child owns this knowledge, and they’re going to share. They need to tell their story. The child asking needs to know the answer.

When your child can explain their situation to answer this question, it’s going to feel good because they’ve taught their peer something. This brings an enormous sense of authority. All kids want to share experiences, because it allows them to connect to their peers. They’ve connected to them on a basic level, which makes them feel like their normal again. And normalizing grief is what we want.

Connections Bring Security

  • The more people come together, the more the child feels supported
  • Takes the fear of the unknown down as their is now a village of supporters

Letting your kid talk about their dead parent opens up the conversation with their peers, but also with other parents, teachers, doctors, and all of the supportive network around them. The more people come together, the more the child feels supported. Which is incredibly important as they now realize how quickly life can change.

As their safety network grows, their fear of the unknown lessens. If something untoward happens to their remaining parent, they know that there will be adults to be there to support and comfort them. Not that anything realistically will happen to their parent, but now that fear has subsided.

Normalizing Grief One Step At A Time

As the story of your lost loved one becomes part of the conversation, instead of it being a taboo subject, their death and its impact on your family becomes normalized.

Western society doesn’t handle grief well. By realizing that life is part of death, and grief is a part of love, it starts to normalize the conversation. Let your child talk about their dead parent. Let yourself continue to have conversations about them as your child grows and develops over time. Your family will always include your lost loved one, and acknowledging this outwardly will help conversations with the world. Therefore, let your kid talk about their dead parent. It’s actually good for all of you.

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