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June 29, 2020

How to Talk to Your Teenager about Death

“Most of us spend much time and energy trying to avoid the reality that we and those we love will die. But in facing the reality of death, we learn how to live rightly. We learn how to live in light of our limits and the brevity of our lives. And we learn to live in the hope of the resurrection.” — from Liturgy of the Ordinary, by Tish Harrison Warren

Our kids need us to talk about death

Death has been called the ultimate statistic: 10 out of every 10 people will die. And although some professions come face-to-face with this reality on a more regular basis (doctors, nurses, police officers, butchers, the military), this conversation can feel quite difficult to begin because much of American society is structured to keep the rest of us from really thinking about it.

Since the 1800s, American culture has tried to “sanitize” death. Bodies are embalmed to look more lifelike at funerals; loved ones often die in hospice or hospitals, not at home. If we do encounter death, our experience is often mediated by news outlets and screens, through impersonal statistics or final photos before someone dies.

The dead often come to us by photograph — in our morning newspapers, in our social-media feeds, on our computer screens next to advertisements for diamond watches or cruises or yoga pants. And many of us fear that we don’t know how to look at them, or what to do in response to what we see. We feel helpless. Useless. And then we feel ashamed. Better not to look at all. Better to avoid images of the dead.

And then there’s imaginary death. Think about the body count in Marvel movies like Avengers: Endgame. A building burns on screen as we sip a Coke; the camera pans to a bloody fistfight and we munch on a fistful of popcorn. Through modern entertainment, we can witness more tragedy in an hour than most people experience in a lifetime, but it’s all detached. Witnessing a bomb detonate in real life might give people PTSD; seeing the same thing on screen may make us tear up for a moment, but when the movie ends we move on with our day, unphased.

So how do we respond when death comes crashing back into our awareness? How will your teen handle news of school shootings, virus outbreaks, and opioid overdoses? This is the world that your teen is navigating, and they need your guidance. In courageously facing the reality of death, there is an invitation for you and your teen to focus on what really matters in life.

4 important tips when talking about death

Death visits our communities in radically different ways. It can be expected or unexpected, natural or unnatural. Talking about the death of a person who lives to see their grandchildren grow up is utterly different from talking about a 3-year-old dying in a car accident, or a 15-year-old taking her own life. Yet each instance of death feels gruesome, and strange, even though it’s the one thing we can all be sure of.

Whether your child or your family has lost someone, or you’re preemptively beginning this conversation, here are a few principles to keep in mind as you navigate your unique situation.

  1. It’s never too early to begin talking about death. This article has step-by-step advice for talking with children about death, with age-appropriate phrasing.
  2. Be clear. It may seem kind to say that someone has passed away, but that phrase and others like it can be confusing. For instance, young children may become afraid to go to sleep if their loved one is “eternally asleep.” Instead, use the words “dead” and “died.”
  3. Be honest. Children should know the real cause of death so they don’t invent fake reasons which might involve guilt or shame. For example, ”My mom must’ve done something wrong,” or “I caused my aunt’s death when I said such and such.” You don’t have to fully explain everything that happened, but communicating the main reason for death is important.
  4. Clarify. What did your teen understand from what you told them? Do they have any questions about what happened? Does anything need to be explained again?

A note about pets: The death of a pet is often someone’s first exposure to death. And our pets are tied to wonderful memories and experiences. A friend of ours reminisces about her family’s two labs,

For me, both Bristol and Piper were companions that could never turn on me, lose my trust, or disagree on what we were going to do. It sounds silly and extreme, but in a way, you have to look at losing a pet like that as losing a confidant, someone or something that knows you and cannot judge you in the slightest.

Encourage your teen to vocalize any feelings they have. Rather than muscling through this loss, or comparing the pet’s death to the “real” hardships that other people face, let your teen process that their friend is gone. And that’s hard.

P.S. This is an excerpt from our new Parent’s Guide to Talking About Death. To get the full guide, click here.

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