This past week we had to talk to our children about death. If you’re reading this maybe you’re in the same boat? How do you talk to a young child about death? Specifically, how do you talk to a child with autism about death?
Last week my husband’s grandfather passed away. The children knew grandpa was sick and we knew that when he dies we were going to have the conversation.
First, we thought about it for a few days. C is 9 with moderate autism and T is only 4 years old. How will they understand? C was only 4 when my husband’s father passed away and somehow that conversation was easier because he was so little.
We never had any animal/pet deaths so we never had to have the conversation about death before. If there was a death in a movie we would use the word “death” but if the kids didn’t ask any questions we never went into details.
We talked it over with my husband, I asked my mom (she’s a preschool teacher) and I even searched online for what to say and how to say it.
How to talk to your child about death
Keep age and maturity level in mind
You know your child better than anyone else. You know what they can handle and how much they can handle. Use words that they can understand. Many autism kiddos are very literal. Use the word death, dead, not alive anymore. “Not moving or breathing” is one phrase we had to use. You cannot use “no longer with us” or “passed away” or other phrases like that because the child may not understand completely that the person is not coming back.
Also, keep in mind how well your child knew the person. You may have to spend extra time explaining the situation based on how hard your child will take the news.
Also in our case C kept asking if Grandpa was coming back. We had to reassure him that he was not coming back in this life.
Give them hope
My family are believers in the Christian faith. And we believe that once we die we go to heaven. We gave our kids hope in that even though they will not see grandpa again here on earth, we will see him again in heaven because he is alive there and is with Jesus.
During the funeral, my mom took a walk with C and talked to him a little more about life after death. Later on, without prompting C went up to his great-grandma to comfort her. He put his hand on her shoulder and said “Don’t be sad. Don’t cry. Grandpa will be alive again.” And later in the day I witnessed him once again trying to comfort her. He placed his arm around her and said: “Don’t worry grandma when Jesus is alive he will make everyone alive, even your grandpa.”
I was tearing up. This sweet, sweet child, saw the pain that his great-grandma was in and went to comfort her the best way he knew how. He made me so proud in those moments. It also showed me how much he actually understood of the situation.
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Let them ask questions
This will be a confusing time for your kids, and they may have many questions or no questions at all. But you need to give them the opportunity to ask questions if they have any.
C didn’t have too many questions when we told him the news, but he had many questions throughout the day of the funeral. And I expect he will have more in the days coming up.
Answer to your best ability. You may even have to say “I don’t know” or “Let me get back to you on that.” That’s okay. Kids want to know that you heard them. Again keep in mind their age and maturity level.
Expect a reaction
Or no reaction.
Every child is different and will react differently to the news.
They may be sad and start crying. In that case, of course, comfort them.
They may say “ok” and go play.
In the case of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) kiddos, this process can take a while. Many times they cannot express themselves appropriately. They may feel out of control and will try to regain control by acting out. Unwanted behaviors may show up. In our case, C has been acting out for a week now while grandpa has been sick. I expect more behaviors this week as well.
Death is a sensitive and complex topic. Our children are sensitive and complex. Unfortunately, in life, this topic will come up and we will have to talk to our children.
You as their parent are more prepared than you may think. You know your child better than anyone. Keep their age and maturity level in mind, give them hope, let them ask questions and expect a reaction on their own terms.
I hope and pray that you find strength and comfort through the situation you are going through that led you to this page.
…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. – Ecclesiastes 12:7
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. – Joshua 1:9