How to talk to your children about death – with help from Disney
Study says watching Disney and Pixar films can help start conversations about mortality
Grief is a journey: every member of the family may be on the same train, but everyone is looking out of a different window, with a different view. Photograph: iStock
Death is a scary business. Just thinking about it is terrifying, so when children force you to talk about it, it can feel worse than a clown climbing out of a drain.
A study published in the Omega Journal of Death and Dying, by academics at the University at Buffalo, shows that films by these particular studios (because there is more death in Disney and Pixar animations than others) can be a useful springboard to start conversations.
Some believe children should be shielded from the concept of death, as if simply mentioning it will cause it to visit itself upon you. This despite it being an absolute certainty that we will all – stop press – die. Thus the death of a relative is talked about in hushed tones; conversations stop when children enter a room; children aren’t allowed to go to funerals and aren’t told loved ones are ill until they are dying or dead. This is a mistake. Because if the adults find it scary, what hope does a child have?
The idea of using films to open up chats is useful because it introduces a difficult concept in an accessible way. Nothing works better than talking about death, easily, factually, calmly – maybe not every day, but often. Here are some tips:
1) Always be calm and factual answering your children’s questions. Listen to the question, answer the question, don’t answer what they haven’t asked. Avoid phrases such as “grandma has gone to sleep” because this can make children afraid of falling asleep. Also, you haven’t “lost” grandma. Grandma is dead.
Don’t be afraid of words like death and dying – like “vagina”, them’s real words. Don’t tell children half-truths, they will make up the missing facts and those can be more damaging than the actual truth.
2) Children tend to grieve differently to adults. They puddle-jump grief – being upset about grandad in one moment and playing with Lego the next. Conversations may take place over several days, weeks, months as they get more curious. It doesn’t mean they have been fretting the whole time.
3) Explain that it’s okay to cry, but it’s also okay not to. Grief is a journey: every member of the family may be on the same train, but everyone is looking out of a different window, with a different view.
4) Don’t be afraid to get help if you or your children are struggling. Sometimes children don’t like to bother their adults because they are afraid of making them upset. Also, if you are not coping, it’s harder yet to support a child.
5) Despite what the research says, don’t watch Dumbo. It’s too upsetting.