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How to talk to a child about death

Listen to Is October the month of death?

So many parents struggle to find the right words when it comes to talking with young children about the death of a friend or family member.

When Bill Radke recently lost a friend to suicide, he realized he was no better equipped and so he invited therapist Kirk Honda on to The Bill Radke Treatment help him think of good ways to talk to his kids.

Honda, a licensed family therapist and professor at Antioch University in Seattle, is the host of the Psychology in Seattle podcast.

Bill Radke remembers going on a bike ride with his 5-year-old daughter, Susannah, and his friend, John shortly before his death. Susannah was taken with John, and they both spent time together laughing and rolling down grassy hills to the water’s edge.

John seemed happy when he was playing with Susannah, but Bill and his friends knew he was struggling. Within days, before he could even get an appointment with a psychiatrist at the local VA hospital, John killed himself.

Although Susannah had lost two grandparents and understood what death was, Bill struggled to figure out a good way to talk with his daughter about the suicide of their friend.

While it’s important to talk with children and to give them an outlet, Honda says there’s no universal approach to talking with children about death.

“Some kids can be traumatized just by the idea of death, and no matter how well you explain it to them, they will ruminate on that and be very anxious about it,” says Honda, “Some kids seem to take it in stride.”

Bill’s strategy was to speak openly and honestly with his inquisitive daughter. He tried to explain that, though life is precious, John was in pain that was why he killed himself.

According to Honda, very young children often wonder how death is going to affect them, so it’s important to reassure them that you, as a parent, are not in the same situation. You aren’t depressed and you are not going to kill yourself.

“That’s a great thing to say to kids, that ‘I’ll be there for you,'” says Honda. “When people die with young children, their primary concern is, ‘Are you going to die?’ because they really depend on you and that can be very scary to them.”

Conversations about death can be especially hard for families that are not religious because it can be hard for parents to answer questions about what happens after death.

“It can be a wonderful thing for a child to believe in an afterlife, it can be a comforting thing,” says Honda.

While Bill isn’t religious, he explained that some people do believe in life after death, and it seemed to comfort his daughter.

The most important part of a conversation about death, according to Honda, is not to lie to your children. Many people tell him that they felt betrayed by their parents when they realized as adults that they were not told the truth as children.

For example, some parents want to shield their children from anxiety when a parent is diagnosed with terminal cancer. But this can leave children with lasting anger and confusion when their parent dies abruptly.

Although Honda says that it can be traumatic to lie to children, he says it’s alright to leave out details when talking about death, especially a violent death or a suicide.

Even though the initial conversation is very important, it’s also vital to follow up with your child about what they are thinking and feeling. This gives them the chance to ask questions, as well as to talk about and process their grief.

“Children tend to compartmentalize in the moment, adults tend to deal with things in the moment,” says Honda, “and so a month from now it could crop up with her again.”

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