How to Talk to Children about Death
Death is often a very difficult subject for parents to discuss with their children. It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from the pain and sadness that is associated with the topic of death. Many parents don't want to bring up such an unhappy subject with their children unless they absolutely have to. Unfortunately, a time will come when children must face the loss of a loved one. It is at this time that parents must provide caring, support, and answers to the many questions their children will have.
Many parents simply don't know how to explain death to their children. Finding the right words and the right answers to all of the questions children have about death is not an easy task for any parent.
Instead of waiting until a tragedy occurs to talk about death, it is a good idea for parents to discuss death with their children before it hits close to home. Parents can use examples in nature like falling leaves, a funeral procession, or a dead bird to bring up and discuss the subject of death. Such discussions will help children get used to the idea that death happens before a tragedy occurs.
When a Death Occurs
Discussing Death with Children
- Warn children of grave illnesses. If a family member or close friend is seriously ill, parents should discuss it with their children before death occurs. Then, if a death does occur, children will be prepared and the event will not be a complete surprise. Also, when there is a serious illness in the family, children can often sense that something unusual is taking place. The atmosphere of sadness in the home can be very frightening for children. It is, therefore, very important for parents to explain to their children what is going on and why they are sad and acting differently.
- Talk to children soon after a death occurs. It may be tempting to put off telling children about the death of a loved one simply to save them from sadness, but children must go through the grieving process just as adults must. The sooner children are informed the sooner they can begin to deal with the loss. Speaking with children quickly also ensures that parents will be the ones discussing the death with their children, instead of someone else.
- Define "dead" in clear and simple terms. Parents should explain to their children what dead means. They should make sure their children know that the dead person won't be able to do any of the things he or she once did, like walk, talk, or breathe.
- Avoid casual explanations. Telling children that someone died because he was sick may lead them to believe that they themselves will also die when they are sick. It is very important, too, that parents not equate death with going to sleep. Telling children that "Grandma went to sleep and will not wake up" or something similar will likely cause children to be afraid to go to sleep for fear that they will never wake up. Adults understand expressions like "passed away" and "gone to heaven," but these are very confusing expressions for children. For the most part, religious explanations are very confusing to children. DO use words like "dead," "stopped working," and "wore out." These are simple words that help establish the fact that the body is biologically dead.
- Fit the explanation to the children. Parents should consider their children's level of development and what they already know about death before talking to their children about death. Parents should put their explanations into words that their children can understand and they should keep it simple. Parents should tell their children the facts and let them know they're available to answer any questions. Children's understanding about death depends on their level of development:
- Two to six year olds. Children between the ages of two and six usually do not understand the finality of death. To them, death is something temporary or reversible. Many children this age may appear unaffected by the death of a loved one. This may be because they actually believe that the deceased person will return. Some children in this age range may take responsibility for death. They may believe that they did something to cause the death. It's important for parents to ask questions to determine feelings of responsibility and then to provide reassurance.
- Six to nine year olds. Around the age of six most children begin to understand that death is a final thing; though this understanding is not complete. For example, children this age may see death as something that only happens to old people or to other people. Children may not be able to accept the fact that death happens to everyone. >Nine to twelve year olds. Some children in this age group may still take responsibility for the death of someone else. Understanding is increasing, and children in this age range can probably handle most of the information given to an adult. Parents should remember, though, that children under stress will often regress. Therefore, some children may not be able to handle all of the details.
- Teens. By the time children reach the teenage years, they probably understand death and its finality as well as an adult. They usually realize the finality and irreversibility of death. Even though they have this understanding, they still need lots of support from parents and loved ones.
- Be honest. Even children as young as three can sense when something is going on in their household. They can also sense when someone is not telling them the whole truth. If children have been given an inadequate explanation and sense a cover up, they'll figure that they're dealing with something scary and unknown. They may even create a wild fantasy about what is happening that is much worse than the facts. Attempts by parents to avoid telling their children about a death usually backfire.
- Encourage questions. Parents should let their children know that they will try to answer any questions that their children may have and will answer them honestly. Parents should also let their children know that they're available to answer any questions that might come up later.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Effective Parenting. © 1998-2004 The Center for Effective Parenting. All Rights Reserved.
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