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Explaining death to children

Death often seems too big a topic for children, especially when they’re younger. That’s the adult perspective, though. Of course, we want to protect our kids from pain and the harshness of life for as long as we possibly can. It’s the most natural thing – both, actually: our desire to protect them as well as death itself. The latter is inevitably part of life. Its evanescence is what makes life so very precious. 

Kids encounter death in bugs, birds, roadkill, their own or one of their friend’s pets, flowers, the leaves changing colour and falling to the ground in autumn, on TV and in some fairytales, in overheard conversations… and we often underestimate their ability to process and cope with death, even a difficult one. What is crucial, though, is to give children age-appropriate explanations about death, the right support and to meet their curiosity with openness, honesty and patience.

In this blog post, we will give tips and help you with suggestions on how to talk to children about death and go over some questions they might have and how you could answer them. We will further go over how to best support a child when a loved one has died as well as what level of understanding and what reactions to expect depending on a child’s age.

When is the right time to talk about death with a child?

When a loved one has just died you might want to shield your child from the news for as long as you can – especially if the deceased played a major role in your child’s life. You might also be afraid that you could end up saying the wrong thing and make it harder for your child than it already is. Or you might worry about their reaction and how they will cope with the loss.

The worst thing for a child in a situation like this is uncertainty about what’s happening around them. Children are excellent observers. They pick up on the slightest changes in their environment. They will feel that something is off and if left to their imagination, they may end up thinking that you are sad or upset because of something they said or did. What your child can imagine may be much worse than the reality. You also wouldn’t want your child to find out by overhearing a conversation or hearing/learning about it from another inappropriate source like for example the news.

Therefore, it is best to tell your child about the death as soon as possible. Even if your loved one died unexpectedly or under distressing circumstances, be honest. Children are very resilient, given the right support. And the truth will be easier and less traumatic to deal with than anything that you might initially consider kinder than whatever actually happened.

To break the sad news, it’s best to sit down with your child in a safe and familiar environment. Make sure there are no distractions and you have enough time to be with whatever emotions come up for your child and answer whatever questions they might have. If you start crying, that’s okay. It shows your child that it’s alright to show emotions and you can explain to them that you are very sad about the death because you already miss grandma/grandpa/uncle/auntie/… dearly. If you feel too distraught by the death and are not up to having this conversation with your child by yourself, ask your spouse or the next closest person for help.

How to talk to children about death

When talking to children about death, three things are paramount: 

  • Clear and direct language – avoid euphemisms at all costs! Kids tend to take things very literally. If you tell them for example that “grandpa has gone to sleep” they might become afraid of going to sleep out of fear they might die as well. Therefore, rather say “I have to tell you some sad news: You know, how grandpa was very old and had become quite ill recently. Now, he has died.”
  • Kids will very likely have heard the words “death”, “died” or “dying” before and – depending on their age and the information they’ve been exposed to – might have their own ideas on what that means. Before you give your child more information, always check with them what their current level of understanding is and take it from there. You can, for example, ask: “What do you think it means when someone is dead?” or “Do you know what that means?”
  • Encourage your child to ask questions. Let them know that death is a natural part of life and not a taboo topic. Listen closely to what your child wants to know and try to give them the information they ask for but not more details than necessary. Kids tend to intuitively know how much they can digest at a time. When they start to get fidgety or distracted or change the topic, they have had enough for the moment. As long as they know that their questions are welcome, they will come back to ask more when they are ready. Children also tend to ask the same question over and over and over again, especially when they are younger. Be patient with them. It’s how they seek reassurance and process information. Let your child know that you will try to answer all their questions as honestly as you can but that you might not know everything. If you are not sure about how to answer a question, be open about it and tell them you’ll get back to them once you have found out. It’s always worth asking “what do you think?”, so you know where they are coming from.

Apart from the above, you may find the following tips and principles helpful when talking about death with a child:

  • Most children find physical contact soothing and will feel reassured by your closeness. When you sit down with your child (depending on their age and what they usually feel comfortable with), have them on your lap or sit next to them on a couch and simply hold their hand.
  • Let them know what will happen over the next few days and how the death will affect their life. It will give them a chance to voice any worries or ask any questions they might have. You could say: “Daddy is going to be busy organising the funeral for granny over the next few days. That’s why auntie Nancy is going to pick you up from school and take you to football. I will be back on (day of the week), just in time to do xyz with you.”
  • Try to keep disruptions to your child’s schedule and routine as minimal as possible. They are dealing with a major change in their life and will find comfort in all the things that can stay the way they used to be. Reassure your child that there are still many people who love them and will care for them and that it’s safe to turn to whoever they feel most comfortable talking to and ask whatever questions they may have.

The best way to explain death to children

It depends on your child’s age and level of maturity how well they will be able to understand the concept of death. Especially kids under the age of five struggle with death’s permanence. It’s hard for them to wrap their head around the fact that whoever has died can’t and won’t come back and they will never see or talk to them again. On the one hand, that is because small children still struggle with the concept of time in general, on the other hand, they may have seen cartoon or fairytale characters being revived after they’ve died.

Use concrete language when explaining death, e.g. always use “died” instead of “passed away” or “gone to sleep” or “…is on the other side now.” Keep it simple and short. Information can be built up over time. Let your child guide you with their curiosity. To start, you could say: “We die when our body stops working – it’s the same for people as for animals. Most people die when they are very old or really, really sick. When someone dies, their heart stops beating. They are not breathing, they don’t eat, drink, speak or think anymore. They also can’t feel anything, nor can they move. When someone is dead they can’t come back to life again.” Explain to them, that death is normal and simply part of life.

There are two great videos that you may find helpful: One is called “Explaining to a child that someone has died” by Child Bereavement UK and the other one is a clip from a Sesame Street episode from 1983 in which Big Bird learns about the death of Mr Cooper.

Here are some common questions kids might have about death:

Does it hurt to die?

Dying usually doesn’t hurt. If someone dies in an accident, it often happens so quickly they don’t feel pain. If someone dies in a hospital, the doctor will make sure they get medication so they are not in too much pain.

Is death a punishment?

No, death is not a punishment. We all have to die. Every flower, every living thing, every person has to die one day. Most people live until they are very old. Eventually, their bodies stop working. This usually happens after they have lived a full and happy life.

Why do people have to die?

It’s the cycle of life. Everything that is born has to die. Babies are born every second of every day. Imagine if no one ever died – we would run out of space on Earth. Sometimes people get into an accident that damages their body beyond repair. Sometimes a person gets very, very sick and they die because of illness. A lot of people live until they are very old, though, and die when one or several parts of their body stop working.

What happens after death?

The body of the dead person gets placed into a coffin, a wooden box, that gets buried in a cemetery or turned into very soft ashes and placed into an urn, a special pot. If the person who died is buried you can go and visit the grave and leave flowers there. The urn can be buried as well or sometimes people choose to scatter the ashes at one of the dead person’s favourite places.

What is the funeral about?

A funeral is a special ceremony where we can say ‘goodbye’ to the person who died by singing some of their favourite songs, reading a poem or story or simply by remembering what they meant to us. It is an opportunity for all those who loved the person who died to come together and share their sadness as well as why they are grateful that the person who died was part of and brought joy into their lives. It helps us to know we are not alone in missing them and can turn to one another when we want to remember the good times together.

Understanding a child’s reaction

Children handle emotions differently. They can jump in and out of them like they would into puddles. They might initially be very sad or not seem fazed by their loved one’s death at all. They might even giggle. Kids learn by example. It is therefore up to you to show them that it is okay to express emotions and that all feelings are welcome. Death can cause feelings of relief or anger. All of that is perfectly natural.

Child Bereavement UK has put together a very helpful guide on “children’s understanding of death at different ages”. It also gives a brief overview for each age bracket on what type of behaviour to expect when a child is dealing with the death of a loved one.

Here are some general suggestions on how to best support your child in their grief:

Be present with your grieving child. Let them know you are there, that you hear and see them and are available to answer any questions they might have. Show up by sticking to the usual routines as much as possible and engage in a shared activity like playing a game or walking the dog together. Reassure them that the death isn’t their fault in any way, shape or form if they worry about that. If they act out or behave badly respond with compassion but try to stay true to your usual behavioural standards. For example, let them know it’s okay to be angry but it’s not okay to hurt anyone else or themselves and that this won’t be tolerated. Teach them healthy ways to express their anger, e.g. ripping up old cardboard boxes, throwing stuffed animals against a wall or door, punching a cushion or going into the woods to scream.

A death in the immediate family can be extremely difficult to cope with by yourself. The Safe Hands Bereavement Support Team can talk to your family during those early days or weeks when it matters most. To learn more about our services, please have a look at our “About Us” page or contact us directly.

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