Talking to My Children About Death

By Li Qiu-yue (李秋月)
Illustration by Zhong Ting-jia (鍾庭嘉)
Abridged and translated by Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)

Talking to My Children About Death

By Li Qiu-yue (李秋月)
Illustration by Zhong Ting-jia (鍾庭嘉)
Abridged and translated by
Chang Yu Ming (張佑民)

Q: How do I talk to my children about death and grief?

A: Death is a law of nature, and it can happen at any point in time. It can be a terrifying or depressing thing for children as they do not understand it, and the younger they are, the harder it is for them. Talking to them genuinely instead of avoiding the topic can help them better understand the concept of death.

Education about life and death is one of the important topics for children to learn, so here are some tips to help you get started.

1) Talk to them on their level

Small children may have difficulties comprehending death and expressing their grief, so you can use picture books to convey the idea to them. For adolescents, you can discuss this topic with them through videos or movies as they should already have some idea about death. During the discussion, do not hide or avoid their questions, answer them sincerely and truthfully, encourage them to talk about their feelings such as fear or sorrow.

2) Express your sorrow

My mother passed away from ovarian cancer. When she was still undergoing treatments, my children often accompanied me to the hospital, so they saw what sorrow is. After she passed, they would always encourage me whenever they see me grieving, "Go take a walk, watch a movie, or do something that you want to do! If not, grandma will be worried…" From then on, I know the concept of life and death are slowly taking root in my children's hearts

3) Write your will early and discuss it with them

Children can be at a loss when the adults at home pass away. Hence we wrote our wills years ago and told them what kind of funeral we want, who they can turn to when we pass away, etc. This should help to ease their mind a little when it happens.

4) Encourage them to volunteer at hospitals

Taking care of a sick family member is the best way to volunteer. When my father-in-law was hospitalized for colon cancer surgery a few years ago, one of my children happened to be on his summer break, so I encouraged him to take turns taking care of his grandfather with his dad. He learned how to sponge bath, how to appease emotions, and also how to chat with the elderly. Last year when I had surgery, he took leave to accompany me to the hospital, hugged me, and told me not to worry. He has learned how to care for people, and that is the essence of life education. We wish for more hospitals to provide opportunities for youths to serve, so they can learn to appreciate the value of life.

5) Provide a safe space for them to mourn

When my father-in-law passed away, we held a simple memorial service. We chose the photo with our child, made a tribute video together, and let him write his eulogy to express his sorrow and the fond memories he had with his grandfather. A safe and warm space for children to let out their emotions is the best way to soothe the pain.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen said, "Parents place their hopes on their children, while children's future, and society's future actually, is on education." If children are the seeds, then parents are the gardener, and we must water and care for them carefully. By talking to them about death, we are instilling the value of life so they can be healthy in both body and mind.

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