If the thought of discussing death with your children gives you the heebee-geebies, you’re not alone. The bad news is that death is one subject none of us can avoid forever; the good news is that kids probably aren’t as scared as we are.
“When children have questions or show an interest in talking about issues relating to life and death, it is important to engage them in open discussion,” says Michelle Pearlman, Ph.D, Director of the Trauma and Bereavement Service at the NYU Child Study Center. “Discussions that include honest communication about children’s feelings, including their fears and worries, are likely to help them feel less afraid.”
Follow your child’s lead. Take your child’s questions seriously, and consider age and temperament before responding. “When a loved one or other person that a child knows dies, the child should generally be told what happened in honest and concrete terms. Continue to talk and provide answers as long as the child is interested,” suggests Pearlman.
For example, you might say, “Fluffy got hit by a car. His body was so hurt that it couldn’t heal, and he died.” Kids tend to be wary of bedtime, so never tell them dying is like falling asleep.
Preschoolers have a hard time grasping the finality of death, and may think the deceased can come back. “It is particularly important to maintain routines and structure,” says Pearlman.
Older children “focus on the mechanics of death,” says Paul Thayer, Assistant Professor of Child Life and Family Studies at Wheelock College. They want to know how the person died and what happened physically. “This often makes adults uncomfortable but for the children it is a way to explore life and unexpected events.”
Adolescents have a more adult understanding of death. “They may ask detailed questions about religious beliefs, question the belief in a just world, and also begin to explore their own mortality,” says Thayer.
You may wonder whether your child is ready to attend a funeral. Young children often lack the attention span to sit still throughout a long service, and might be frightened by crying adults or an open casket. Let them know what to expect in advance, and appoint a trusted adult to take them out if necessary.
Finally, remember that death is a natural part of life. As Thayer says, “don’t let your own fears keep you from offering your expertise to a grieving child by providing a warm, supportive, and inquisitive classroom to explore this world with all its experiences.”
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