Do you remember the first funeral you attended?
I can barely remember mine. I was six when my maternal grandfather died. I remember being there. I also remember not understanding what was happening because I was so young. In some ways, I am thankful that I was little when this occurred. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to confront feelings about his death that I didn’t expect. I had no idea what to do, even as an adult.
Death is hard. It is confusing and devastating for children and for adults, each in their own unique way.
Has your teenager experienced the death of an important person? A family member, friend or mentor? Maybe they have and you’ve already navigated this difficult time with them. Bravo to you. Please tell us how you did it in the comments. I would love to learn from you!
Perhaps this has yet to happen to your child. I wish this is something you could avoid altogether, but we all know better. Where do you start? How do you comfort your child? How do you explain what happened? How do you take care of yourself?
Here are my thoughts about talking to teenagers about death. Teens process tragic events differently than younger children. These suggestions may not be a good match to use with children under the age of 12.
First, if you are the one to break the news to your teen, please don’t rush into this conversation. By all means, don’t delay it. What I’m saying is to take a few minutes to consider the words you want to use. Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. How would you want to learn about a significant person’s death? That’s a good place to start.
What if your teen learns about a death before you? They may need some time to figure out their emotions before they can explain what happened or talk with you. They could also drop it like a bombshell in your lap. Again, you don’t have to respond immediately. Take a minute to feel your feelings and then go from there.
Some deaths are expected, others are not. An elderly relative’s passing will be different than the death of a classmate or friend. Also, consider how the person died. Death by suicide or accident will feel different than a death after a long illness or in old age.
A question I often use is “Would you like to talk about how _____ died?” If they say no, that is alright. Let your teen know they can always come back to this conversation with you. If they say yes, stick with the facts of the death to start. Use a calm voice and soothing language as much as possible.
Once you’ve talked about what happened, ask, “How do you feel about this?” Your teen may not know or they might be able to identify lots of feelings already. Either is okay. Remind them that whatever they are feeling is okay and that you’re there to support them.
Have you and your teen talked about death before? Do you or your teen have beliefs about what happens after a person dies? Referencing these conversations and beliefs can be useful, but not always. Ask your teen if they’d like to talk about these topics. Leave room for them to say no. Be prepared for them to say yes. Be sure to be respectful of their beliefs, even if they differ from yours. An argument about life after death is not helpful at this point.
Depending on the nature of the death, there could be media coverage. You’ll want to prepare your child for news coverage and social media posts. I discourage people from looking at these too much. Avoid reading the comments on news stories and public Facebook posts at all costs. Focus on the relationship you and your teen had with the deceased. Look at your own pictures. Recall your fondest memories. Stay away from the internet as much as you can.
Your child may hear about the death from friends, classmates, teachers or strangers. Prepare them for this possibility. Let them know that they are not required to talk about the person or their death with anyone. Your teen can end conversations or tell the person they do not want to talk about the deceased. This can be especially difficult if the death was traumatic and is very public. Help increase your teen’s confidence in setting boundaries. Let them know you have their back and support them if they do not want to talk to others about the death.
If you will be attending a wake, funeral or memorial for the deceased, talk with your teen ahead of time. These events can be daunting, especially if your child has never attended one before. If you know, inform them if there will be an open or closed casket and talk about why people choose to do this. Even if you do not know, assure your teen that they do not have to look at the body if they do not want to.
Explain that different people may be grieving in many ways at the service. They may see people crying, laughing, hugging or being very quiet. Offer them an out if they become overwhelmed. In emotionally-charged situations, my go-to escapes are stepping outside or going to the bathroom.
A graveside service or burial is yet another factor to consider. Talk with your teen about how they feel about going to the grave-site. Leave room for a day-of decision. Remind your teen that they can always visit the grave later if they choose not to go the day of the service.
After the funeral or service, talk with your child about what happens next.
In many ways, life goes back to normal. You go back to your regular routines and schedule.
What doesn’t go back to normal is feelings. It is very important for your child to be able to talk about their grief as much as they need to after a death. They may decide to do this in a journal, in art, or in song. Some teens like to create a memorial item or space to help them remember that person.
Whatever you do, encourage your son or daughter to continue to work through their grief. Remind them that it takes time to grieve and that there is not a right or wrong way to grieve.
Do you need some help through this process? Talking to a counselor can be an invaluable part of the grieving process. Here is a place to start.
Wondering how you deal with anniversaries of death with your teen? Learn more here.
Bethany Raab is a Denver-based social worker who loves helping teens and their families be happy and healthy!