Talking to children about death is a difficult topic to write about. I am not a child psychology expert, nor do I pretend to be, and neither Katie’s nor my experiences required having to tell small children that one of their parents was terminally ill. This is, however, an important matter to address so we’ve included links to other resources, followed by a short summary of my experience talking to my older children.
What the Experts Say
Below are links to articles and resources written by licensed therapists regarding how to communicate with kids about death. Their counsel rings true and I hope these will be useful resources for anyone who needs it.
When Kris was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my kids were older, ranging in age from 14 to 23. Though they knew of her stage four diagnosis, we didn’t go into a lot of details partly because Kris didn’t want me to and partly because we just didn’t have many details to share. The doctors never estimated how much time she had left, and that was a good thing for us as it was one less detail we didn’t have to fret over not sharing. In addition, her treatment seemed to be cutting the cancer down so we hoped that she would be part of the one percent that could survive, and we could avoid having to discuss the worst outcome.
As time passed, however, I began to strongly feel the need to at least suggest that this cancer journey may not end the way we all wanted it to. I’m so glad I acted on those promptings because it wasn’t too long after those conversations that Kris’ health started to rapidly decline.
I don’t remember all the exact words I used, but I remember feeling the need to be as open and honest as I could. I was especially conscious of the young teenager at home. She is smart and perceptive and was the only one of our kids at home to see her mom’s day-to-day health and activities and how they changed from her diagnosis until her death. If I had tried to sugarcoat anything, she would have seen right through it.
There is no getting around that those were difficult discussions. I was scared and nervous because I wasn’t sure what to say or share. I was also not sure how the kids would handle it nor how I could possibly comfort them. One of my kids has since shared how helpful it was to have that conversation. She was a first-year college student and up until then she said the thought of mom dying never crossed her mind. After our talk she began to mentally and emotionally prepare herself and that helped her get a head start on the grieving process.
Based on my experience, even though it was with older kids, the advice from the above articles that really resonated with me and that I would want to emphasize is honesty. Telling the truth and using words like death or dead may sound harsh, but if we try to minimize it by using common slang like “pass away” or “went to sleep”, it might be confusing and misleading.
Of course, they’ll need to understand what death and dead mean so taking everyday life opportunities to introduce the idea seems helpful. In the Parents.com article, for example, it was suggested that talking about fruit going bad or dead houseplants are good ways to introduce death. Talking about death as it comes up in movies or when a neighbor dies are other ways to prepare kids now for a death that will impact them directly in the future.
If you need further assistance or guidance, contact Prepare Your Affairs at email@example.com.
If you have little ones at home, read through the above articles and others that you may find on your own. Talk with your spouse or parents about how best to introduce the concept of death with your children.
If you have older kids, talk to them about death. Have they ever imagined what life will be like without a loved one? What has been their experience with death so far in their life? Is there anything you can do now to prepare them for life without you, another parent, or other close family members?
Corey and Katie entered widowhood in 2016 after losing spouses to cancer. They met and connected in a widow/widower support group and later married. One of the principles they learned from their own experiences and those of other surviving spouses is that the more prepared a surviving spouse is on a financial, legal, emotional, and practical level, the better they will adjust to widowhood. They will maintain their independence and control of their assets and be freer to properly grieve and move forward in life. Conversely, those who are not prepared are more likely to have their lives flipped upside down. They may need to move and uproot kids because they can't afford the mortgage, rely on family or other charities to financially support them, and/or change jobs to allow them to better serve as a single parent. We hope to share what we've learned and help other families properly get their affairs in order and be prepared with confidence, peace of mind, and in control of their assets.