6 Tips for Teaching Kids About Death

posted: 02/23/16
by: Katie Morton
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  • Funerals are hard for children of all ages.
    Funerals are hard for children of all ages.
    Image Credit: iStock

    The Subject No One Wants to Talk About

    Death is a part of life. As parents, it can be hard for us to explain to our children what happens when we die. We worry that we may upset or scare them. Experts say that discussing death with your children isn’t easy, but it’s something you should do—especially when faced with the loss of a loved one. Here’s how to handle this sensitive topic with grace.

    What is Death?

    Young children may not understand the true meaning of the word. Jill Macfarlane, director of The Sharing Place recommends being honest and concise. She recommends using explanations such as, “Everything that lives dies,” and “Dead means your body doesn't work anymore. You can't speak, eat, breathe, think, or feel, and your body will always stay dead.”

    These specific words address what happens to the physical body when a person dies and also conveys that death is permanent. It may be tempting to gloss over the negative aspects of death and try to package it in a way that’s more pleasant for your child. We may have heard platitudes such as, “Grandma went to sleep.” The problem with this approach is your children may then become fearful of sleep or bedtime—worried that they too will never wake up.

  • Try to be as honest as possible.
    Try to be as honest as possible.
    Image Credit: iStock

    If You Know The Answer, Tell Them

    Children may be curious about what happened to a sick relative or an older family member. While you don’t have to share unsettling details of how they died, it can be reassuring to tell children basic facts. It’s perfectly fine to say, “Grandpa died because he was old and he got sick.” This helps them process the cycle of life. One analogy that children understand is comparing life to trees—leaves and flowers bloom in the spring, then wilt and die in the fall when they’re older. People get older too, and their bodies wilt and die.

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    Find Ways to Keep Memories Alive

    When children have relatives or friends close to them die, it can be traumatic. And though talking about their feelings can help, it is important to keep their connection to that person. Depending on their age, have them keep a journal of every time they want to share a thought or story with that person. Or, if they're too young to write down their feelings, you can pretend to "call Heaven" and speak to the person they're missing.

  • The hospital can be scary for young children.
    The hospital can be scary for young children.
    Image Credit: iStock

    Visiting Sick Relatives in the Hospital

    Many parents question whether it’s appropriate to bring young children to visit a terminally ill relative in the hospital. There’s no correct answer to this question, but some bereavement counselors suggest asking the child whether they want to go. If the ill relative is incapacitated or hooked up to life-sustaining apparatus, this may be very scary for a young child. Use your best judgment based on the relationship and prepare your child ahead of time by explaining to them what they can expect to see.

  • Depending on the child's age, this may be difficult.
    Depending on the child's age, this may be difficult.
    Image Credit: iStock

    Attending the Funeral

    Many parents wonder whether they should bring their children to a funeral. Again, this is a question only you know the answer to. It depends on the child’s relationship to the deceased, as well as their own maturity level. Preschool-aged or younger children will have a hard time sitting through a long service, so you may want to bring along someone to help with their comfort and care.

    You should also gauge the tone of the funeral. For a younger person who died tragically, the funeral can be overwhelming. For a loved relative who lived a long, full life, the funeral may be more celebratory and a happy time of remembrance. Decide how much your own child can handle at their age.

  • Check in on your child's feelings.
    Check in on your child's feelings.
    Image Credit: iStock

    Address Their Feelings

    Processing the death of a loved one can make a child feel vulnerable and unsafe. As a parent, you want to explain the facts to them. However, once you’ve shared the age-appropriate information and answered their questions, it’s equally as important to check in on their feelings. Let them share, emote, and then let them know that they’re heard. No matter what they’re feeling, reassure them that it’s perfectly OK for them to have these feelings.

    If you’re at a loss for words, sometimes a good book can point you in the right direction. These first two titles explain death and dying in a way that children can understand. The second two titles are geared toward parents seeking information on how best to discuss death and dying.

    ”Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children,” by Bryan Mellonie

    ”I Miss You: A First Look at Death,” by Pat Thomas

    ”Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child,” by Eric A. Grollman

    ”A Parent’s Guide to Grieving Children: Rebuilding Your Family After the Death of a Loved One,” by Phyllis R. Silverman and Madelyn Kelly

    Confronting the realities of death is never easy—even for adults. Knowing how to answer your child’s questions and helping them process a loss is emotionally challenging for both of you. Know that the simple act of recognizing your child’s feelings and answering their questions will reassure them and make them feel supported.