Communicating with Children
What should I say to my children about death and cremation?

Discussion with children about death and the rituals around death need to be honest and open. Children need this because they can sense what’s going on around them. Honest answers to their questions can minimize their fears.

Before you discuss cremation, talk about death in simple terms. You may say that death means someone is no longer breathing, is not alive, can’t experience things in this world and is dead. It’s important to use the words “dead” and “died.” Terms such as "loss", "in heaven" or "passed away" may confuse children. If the child was present when the death happened, it’s good to review events simply. Children may feel they’re at fault somehow, and it’s important to assure them that they’re not to blame for the death. Children may have some ideas about illness, death and funerals that seem strange to adults. These thoughts need to be clarified gently, with simple explanations. It’s also crucial to understand that children need repeated discussion of issues around death. They may ask certain questions over and over again. It can be hard emotionally for adults to answer the same questions repeatedly, but it’s important for the children.

Use information that’s appropriate for their age. If you have several children close in age, it’s best to talk with them together. This creates an open environment, which promotes discussion and questions. These discussions can be very tough for parents. Keep in mind that it’s okay to show emotion; it shows children that emotions are a natural part of grieving. You and your children may find it helpful to have someone with you when you talk. This could be a friend, someone the children know or a health care provider who can answer questions.

When you do talk about cremation, keep things simple. Cremation is just one part of death and grieving. There are different views on what’s best to say. Some people don’t want to talk about fire and burning, while others do use those words. Parents usually know what their children can handle and the words that are best for them. Whatever words you use, make it clear that the person who died does not suffer in the cremation process because they are dead and are unable to feel.

If you plan to keep the ashes in your home, make your children comfortable with that. It helps to show them the ashes, as it makes the contents of the urn very real to children. Explain that the ashes are what’s left of the person who died. You may want to decide together where the ashes will be kept. This helps children realize the importance of the ashes and their significance in your home. It also gives them a chance to identify a location that’s special to them or to a particular memory.

There are other containers available to store ashes. Several small urns can be used so the ashes can be divided and kept in several places. Necklaces that contain ashes can be a symbolic way to keep the loved one close. There are also teddy bears with heart necklaces containing ashes that children can keep in their rooms. Discussing the relevance of ashes is the key to stimulating discussion and helping them remember the person who died.

If your children are young, an excellent way to promote conversations about these difficult subjects is to have them draw, or to read to them from children’s books about dying. You can talk about the drawings or the stories, and relate them to what’s happening in their lives.