3 steps to talk with kids about death in the pandemic

Gretchen Ferrao-Walker
·4-min read

As India's Covid-19 cases rise, it’s increasingly likely to receive news about related deaths within our community.

While it’s natural to want to shelter kids from such realities, should we be preparing them for possible loss in the pandemic?

Research shows that effective communication with children about illness and death can help their psychological wellbeing. However, mental health experts emphasise the need to convey information in a manner that is relevant to your personal situation and child’s age.

01. Check in with your child

Children are sensitive to changes within the family and without adequate information, tend to draw conclusions more dire than the truth. It’s one of the reasons why Priti Fernandes and her husband chat with their kids (7 & 10) about the risk associated with their father’s job as a banker. “It is better to prepare them; sudden news would affect them worse mentally,” she says.

While we need to be honest about things like a family member testing Covid positive, “exposing them to every detail can burden the child who doesn’t know how to process [the same],” cautions student counsellor Yogita Hastak-Menon. She recommends initiating dialogue with open-ended questions like ‘What do you think might happen to Dad?’ ‘I know this can be scary to think about. Do you want me to explain anything?’ Pause to offer them space to process and respond. This helps you gauge where your child is at, before flooding them with information.

02. Address their concerns

“The reality of how serious the pandemic can be struck us when we lost a family friend. My kids were concerned about what would happen to his daughter who is around their age,” says Priti. Some other questions to expect: ‘Why did the person die?’ ‘Will I die?’ ‘Will you die?’

“We need to consider the child’s age and prior experience with and exposure (including media) to death, before responding,” says anthroposophical psychologist Nirupama Rao. She adds that now may also be a good time to talk about the family’s beliefs about life after death.

Euphemisms like ‘grandpa has gone to sleep’ can be confusing for children. Try simple, direct communication to explain that death is permanent. ‘When a person dies, their body stops working and doesn’t start working again. They don’t feel pain or hunger anymore.’

Talking about the positive stuff is as important, says Rao. If a loved one is ill, explain that the medical staff and family are doing their best to help. Reassure children about the strong network of friends and family around for support, in case a parent is unwell.

03. Hold space for grief

Although death is an inevitable part of life, we don’t talk about it openly, says Hastak-Menon. “When faced with reality, children may feel shocked and cheated,” she explains. Be sensitive to the individual manners in which children grieve, depending on their age and the situation. Modelling ways to work through loss can be a healthy way encourage kids to open up. It also lets them know that they’re not alone in how they emote, says Hastak-Menon.

“Stories, art therapy, play therapy, music and movement therapies, and gardening offer safe spaces to help younger kids open up,” says Rao.

Read more on supporting children through pandemic-related grief.

Honour the deceased by sharing memories of them, revisiting old photographs or cooking their favourite meal. In the process, ask the kids what they feel when thinking about the person. "Help them understand that grief and time are closely linked. As time passes, we tend to make sense of things and feel a little less pulled in by that emotion," she adds.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional, via platforms like Bereavement Support India or The Alternative Story, if you or your child need help working through this hard time. Red flags include: Behavioural changes like depression episodes, erratic emotional outbursts, or if a child has witnessed a morbid incident.

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Nirupama Rao is an anthroposophic psychologist and author with over two decades of experience in the area of child development and special needs. She works with a host of schools, NGOs and hospitals across India. Find her at Niraamayaa.

Yogita Hastak is a student counsellor with 12 years of experience working with educational institutions in India and abroad.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult your physician or a qualified mental health professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.