Children are naturally curious. Sometimes they ask BIG questions. I did.
When I was 6 or 7, I asked my grandmother if she was going to die. Just like that. Clear out of the blue. She told me she would (“someday”) and that she wasn’t afraid. She had “lived a good life.”
This clearly left an imprint as early, profound conversations always do.
When I’m running workshops or classes, I often hear from people who were not welcomed into the end-of-life experiences of loved ones or pets as children. Well-meaning relatives attempted to spare them suffering by providing confusing information or none at all.
So, these kids were left to their own imaginings, often feeling abandoned or overwhelmed in a time of great need. This leaves a different kind of imprint.
How can we (parents, educators, elders, caregivers) prepare ourselves to become a trusted resource?
Tips for Supporting Children through Difficult Conversations and the Inevitability of Loss:
(From MY MAP OF MEMORY LANE, companion book to: MAP OF MEMORY LANE)
- Follow Their Lead
Ask what questions they have. Listen intently. Adjust your responses to their level of understanding. Check in and pause the conversation as needed. Allow time for processing.
- Use Clear Language
When talking about the end of life, use terms like “death” and “died.” Explain how a person’s (or pet’s) body stops working (no more heartbeat, breathing, moving, or feelings of pain at all). Use examples from nature to illustrate the life cycle.
- Don’t Feel Pressured to Know Everything
Wonder together. Admit that not all questions have clear answers. Explore varying beliefs.
- Welcome it ALL
Grief (before, during, and/or after a loss) includes waves of many emotions—confusion, shock, anger, sadness, gratitude for memories, relief that any suffering has ended, etc. Normalize and validate.
Each conversation will unfold uniquely, and each young person will need a different type of support. We may fear saying the wrong thing. We want to get it right. Sometimes this keeps us from broaching the topic at all.
With compassionate intentions, we can bravely enter into these talks, ensuring children are not left alone in their thoughts or feelings—an unquestionably worthy effort.
What stories of loss do you hold heavily from your childhood? What approaches have you found most supportive? Meaningful?
Learn more about MAP OF MEMORY LANE, a children’s book that gently introduces the inevitability of loss while celebrating the memories we cherish.
An author read aloud of MAP OF MEMORY LANE: