Explaining death to children can be difficult — they soak up information at an incredible rate, but how soon is too soon for them to grapple with the idea of mortality? Princess Kate shared that she and Prince William’s youngest son, Louis, 4, is struggling with the idea of Queen Elizabeth II’s recent death.
At a reception for King Charles III on Sunday, September 18, Kate spoke with Australian Governor-General David Hurley, who recalled their conversation to reporters afterward. She told him, “[Louis] is now asking questions like, ‘do you think we can still play these games when we go to Balmoral [for our family’s summertime visit]?’ and things like that, because she’s not going to be there.”
While he doesn’t fully understand the reality of the Queen’s death, Louis is finding peace in his great-grandparents’ reunion. According to Roya Nikkhah, Royal Editor of The Sunday Times, Kate told a group of children amongst the mourners outside Westminster on September 10 that Louis had said, “At least Grannie is with Great-Grandpa now,” in reference to the Queen’s husband Prince Philip, who died last year.
According to Hurley, Kate additionally revealed that Prince George, Louis nine-year-old elder brother, is “sort of now realizing how important his great-grandmother was and what is going on.” George and Princess Charlotte, 7, will both be attending the Queen’s funeral ceremonies on Monday, September 19, but “Louis’ name was not included in the official program,” reports Us Weekly.
Is there a right way to explain death to a child?
We are sure that Kate and William are doing all that they can to help their children understand death, but it’s never an easy topic to tackle. While there are so many factors to consider when explaining the death of a loved one to a child, there are some general rules that can help. Here are 11 tips from Kate Eshleman, PsyD, pediatric psychologist for Cleveland Clinic, for explaining death to your child in “compassionate, understandable, and age-appropriate ways”:
1. Be straightforward in your explanations.
With something as potentially disturbing as the concept of death, you may want to soften it for your children, but that isn’t helpful to them, says Dr. Eshleman. “[Ambiguity] can cause distress, so it’s important to use the actual words.”
2. Honesty is the best policy.
When it comes to difficult truths, you’d rather your young one hear it from you than from anyone else. By being up-front with them about death, and what happens when someone dies, regardless of how uncomfortable it is, “you maintain their trust and authority,” says Dr. Eshleman.
3. Ask and answer questions.
Death is a big, confusing topic, and children are naturally inquisitive. Cater to their curiosity by asking open-ended questions and encouraging conversation, but be careful to talk on their terms. “Don’t force them to engage in conversations they’re not ready or able to have, but do offer the opportunities,” Dr. Eshleman recommends.
4. Prepare them for upcoming rituals.
Funerals can be jarring and upsetting, especially for a child who doesn’t understand the nature of grief. Dr. Eshleman suggests explaining what the funeral or other mourning ritual will be like, including that people may be crying or approaching your child, or that they might see their loved one’s body.
5. Let kids make decisions.
Equipping your child with knowledge also helps them make grief decisions for themselves. If they don’t feel prepared to view their loved one’s body, that is okay. “It’s about preparing them in advance and then following their lead,” says Dr. Eshleman.
6. Meld your faith with the facts.
Explaining death in terms of your family’s religion can help a child understand what is happening more clearly, Dr. Eshleman notes.
7. Try not to project your emotions onto your kids.
Dr. Eshleman explains that because children don’t have the same amount of life experience that adults do, they may not understand or feel sadness at the same times or in the same way. Be careful not to force feelings of sadness onto them.
8. Let them feel their feelings.
When your child does feel sadness, it’s important to let them recognize their feelings so they can understand them. Dr. Eshleman also recommends communicating with your children about your own emotional response.
9. Make them feel safe.
Especially in the case of untimely, tragic deaths, children may feel fear alongside their sadness. Dr. Eshleman notes that it’s important to explain to children “the ways they are safe and the ways that we continue to try to keep them safe.”
10. Keep talking about their loved one.
Bring up the deceased loved one in conversation instead of avoiding them, as discussing them “can help both you and your child cope with grief,” says Dr. Eshleman.
11. Ask for help and consider mental health resources.
Death is an unfortunate but inevitable part of life, and you are far from alone in struggling with grief. Dr. Eshleman emphasizes the importance of reaching out to family, friends, and medical professionals for help with coping.
Though Prince Louis has grown up in extraordinary circumstances, he is still a child just like any other — one who is beginning to understand loss. Use these guidelines to help the children in your life, and don’t forget to take care of yourself in difficult times, too.