As parents, we are faced with difficult questions more often than we’d like; however, it’s important to address our children’s questions about death with information that is appropriate for their age level and individual needs. If you need help explaining death and dying to children, we have a few ideas for you to consider.
Death may be a natural part of life; however, children – especially young children – are not always familiar with the term and its significance. While explaining death to your child may not be easy, it is important to be as open with your children as you can in order for them to effectively open themselves to grieving and subsequently, healing.
Keep an open mind when teaching your children about death. It is not an easy topic to discuss, particularly if you are going through a period of grief yourself. Be open to your children asking questions and answer them to the best of your ability.
Make sure to explain that every person grieves differently and that it is okay for your children to grieve in their own way. As a parent, you also want to make note that this is true up to a point which is providing they are not destructive to themselves or others. It is typical for children to forget that death is a permanent state and they may ask when the deceased will be coming back home.
Depending upon the circumstances surrounding the death, it may be more difficult for you to explain to your children. An elderly person dying is a little easier to explain than the family dog being involved in an accident or a close friend or relative dying suddenly during an act of violence.
In the case of a pet’s death, it may be tempting to say that Fido ran away, but be aware that you are potentially leaving hope to your children that Fido will find his way back home. It is better to let your children know that Fido died from injuries to his body rather than instill false hope that one day Fido will return.
If a relative passes away suddenly, especially a parent, it can be a mind-numbing experience. Children may express guilt over the passing of a parent or close friend and feel that they could have done something to save the person. This is called survivor’s guilt, especially if the child was present when the person died. It’s important to reassure the children that the death didn’t relate to anything the child did or didn’t do.
For children who are old enough to understand the circumstances, it is okay to share some of the details. However, keep in mind that some facts, especially gory or shocking details, will not help them to understand or heal. With young children, keep your explanations very simple.
Children tend to take language literally rather than figuratively, so be sure to use straight language and avoid any euphemisms. As you answer your child’s questions about death and dying, remember to clarify the “real” question. Ask your child to restate the question or ask your own questions to make sure you understand what the child is really asking.
I’m reminded of the time when one adult, not a family member, was asked about a pet who was hit by a car. The child asked, “Where is Fluffy (the cat) now?” The adult proceeded to share her beliefs about an after-life. As the adult explained, the child began to look more and more confused. The lady finished her answer. The child, who was now a bit upset, said, “But, I want Fluffy in the pet cemetery with the rest of our pets!” The child just wanted to know where the body was at the moment.
To sum it up, explain that death and dying are normal parts of life and that every living thing will die one day. It may be frightening for children to learn of their mortality, but it will help them cope to learn that death is a natural event. Open yourself up to answer any questions that your child may have and you will not only teach your child a life lesson, but also help your child grieve and heal.