Explaining death to children

One of the hardest things a parent or carer has to do after someone dies is talk to their child about it. Explaining what death is to a child is never easy, whether it’s grandma who’s gone up to heaven, a friend or even the family pet.

Death is often considered to be a taboo subject, especially when children are involved. Some people choose to keep family deaths a secret from their children for as long as possible. Conversations about the service often come to a stop as soon as the children enter the room, and coming to the funeral is totally out of the question. It’s natural of course to want to shield our children from the pain of losing a loved one, but being open and honest on the subject can actually do a lot of good.

Your child may already know a lot more about death than you realise, in fact children are exposed to the concept every day. Your child has probably heard stories from friends at school or may have learned a little about death from simply stepping on a bug. Death is also featured in many children’s stories and films. Classic fairy tales from The Brothers Grimm and Disney films for example almost always feature a character death, you even find it helpful to look to movies like Disney’s Frozen and Up when explaining death to a child.

Children are such curious little creatures, it’s no secret to any parents that kids enjoy learning new things and aren’t afraid to ask what seems like hundreds of questions, “where is heaven?”, “what does cremate mean?”, “what are funeral urns?”, for example. Children tend to think that adults know everything and are able to answer all of their questions, even questions about death and what happens afterwards. Not knowing all of the answers is what makes some parents uncomfortable when talking about death, but telling your child that you don’t know will still make them feel better. Share your beliefs with your child, and also tell them about the beliefs of other people, religions and cultures and allow them to develop their own ideas about what happens after somebody passes away.

Younger children around the age of 4 often see death as temporary or reversible, which is understandable as characters in the stories they read and the movies they watch often come back to life – think of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty for example. This does mean however that parents may need to remind younger children that death is in fact permanent, and it means that they sadly won’t be able to see that person again.

When a family member dies, parents often tell their children it’s because that person was very sick. It’s important to explain to young children that this is really only the case with serious illnesses, so that they don’t get scared the next time they get a cough or cold.

It’s not uncommon for young children to ask questions about death and find it all a bit confusing. Be sure to explain it to them as simply as possible, you may need to explain that when somebody dies they can no longer walk, talk, play or do any of the things they used to do. Many parents are tempted to compare death to being asleep, this is not advisable however, as it can lead to children developing sleep problems as a result.

Children deal with grief differently than adults do, they may be devastated and hysterical about the death of a pet goldfish, yet be completely unemotional about the death of a grandparent. Children may not understand why their families members are upset so it’s often necessary to explain why it’s sad when somebody dies. Don’t be afraid of using the word ‘death’, or of letting your child see you cry.

Dealing with death isn’t easy, even as an adult, but the best way to comfort children and help them understand is by being honest and open. When parents lie or keep things a secret their children will often imagine something much worse and this will only harm their development. Some children may even blame themselves for a family member’s death, so it’s important to reassure them that it’s not their fault.

When it comes to communicating with children it’s especially important to be patient. Some children may keep asking questions, while others will go silent. Children tend to be quite blunt when asking questions and may not understand yet how sensitive death is. They may ask questions like, “when will you and mummy/daddy die?” It’s important not to be offended by questions like this, and to think about what the child is really asking. If your child does ask a question like this, reassure them by saying something like, “I’m not sure, but hopefully not for a long time. Are you scared that you’ll be left alone? There will always be somebody here to take care of you.”

Young children may be confused or upset at first, all you can do is be understanding and supportive. Tell them that you love them and make sure they know that they’re free to discuss their feelings and that you’ll be there to listen.

 

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