Talking to Children about Death
Children need consolation, love, support, and affection.
Talking to children about death
When a loved one dies, children need consolation, love, support, and affection more than they need complicated medical or scientific explanations.
Children’s reactions to the death will depend upon their age and developmental level.
- Children 3 to 5 years of age see death as temporary and potentially reversible.
- Generally, it is not until 9 years of age that children fully understand that death is permanent and final.
Begin a dialogue with your child about how all living things on this earth will die someday.
Speak in simple terms that a child can understand. What is said is important, but the manner in which it is said has even greater significance. Be aware of your voice tone. Remember that what is communicated without words can be just as meaningful to a child as what is actually said.
It’s not unusual for a child to ask the same question again and again.
Repeating questions and getting answers helps the child understand and adjust to the loss of someone loved. Try to answer the questions in a matter-of-fact way without too much emotion. Be honest if you do not have an answer to their question. Death is also difficult for adults to understand, thus do not try to make up some evasive answer. Children usually sense our doubts. White lies, no matter how well intended, can create uneasiness and distrust.
Do not use euphemisms when explaining death to children.
Children’s view of death can often be twisted because of how society or adults speak of death. Euphemisms are frequently used to soften the concept of death. Unfortunately, it complicates the situation. Statements such as “Grandpa is sleeping”, “She passed away”, “He went away”, “We lost grandpa today”, or “Grandma was sick” create fear in children as they cannot differentiate between reality and what has been said. Other phrases such as “She went to be with God” or “He was just old” also create distrust and confusion. Again, use simple, honest, straightforward explanations. A pastor and the funeral directors at O’Connell’s can also be a valuable tool to answer some of the difficult questions. It is also crucial to realize, talk alone cannot solve grief and is only one step to healing.
A basic biological explanation of what dead means:
“Grandma died. Her heart stopped beating and she doesn’t breathe in and out anymore. She doesn’t need to eat or go to the bathroom. She cannot see, hear or move, and she cannot feel pain. Being “dead” is not the same as sleeping. All your body parts work when you are sleeping. When a person dies, her body has stopped working. The part of Grandma that was alive is gone. All that’s left is her body – like an egg shell without the egg.”
By talking to our children about death, we may discover what they know and do not know – if they have misconceptions, fears, or worries. Don’t be mislead, our children already have an idea of death through seeing dead birds, insects, plants, or animals by the road or by watching TV or their favorite Disney movie. Death is a part of life, and children, at some level, are aware of it. If we permit children to talk to us about death, we can give them needed information, prepare them for a crisis, and help them when they are upset. We can encourage their communication by showing interest in and respect for what they have to say. We can also make it easier for them to talk to us if we are open, honest, and comfortable with our own feelings -often easier said than done.