Explaining Death to Children
The way you respond when talking to young children about death is determined by your own personal and spiritual views on the topic. The following suggestions will help you explain some practical aspects of what happens when death occurs.
When talking to young children about death, it is a good idea to start out by finding out what they already believe. It is quite surprising what misconceptions they may have already developed. During a talk like this, it is good to have as much touching and holding as possible to make them feel secure and less afraid. The conversation may be difficult and you may not have all the answers, but do not be afraid to say you do not know. This is usually better than making up some fantasy that may later confuse and upset them.
It is alright to let children know that you feel sad and even to see you cry. Explain why you are sad and reassure them that it is ok for them to feel sad and cry if they want to. Tell the truth. Children are more resilient then adults think. Do not create lies to protect them, they may resent you later for not being truthful. Keep your answers simple and at a level they can understand.
Although it is difficult for young children to understand the finality of death, it is best to confront the issue honestly. Never tell them the person went away on a trip and will return later. Also, never equate death to sleeping. Stories like these confuse and upset children more than the truth. Even though you tell children the person will not return, they may frequently ask you when they’ll be back. This is natural and should be answered truthfully each time.
Children may think something they said or did make the person die. Reassure them this is not true. Explain that they may even feel angry at the deceased because they died. Let them know that this is normal and even adults feel that way sometimes. They may be afraid that you will die or that anyone who gets sick or goes into the hospital will die. Reassure them that illness and death do not go hand in hand and that you plan to stay alive for a long time.
Encourage children to attend funeral or memorial services and make visits to the cemetery, but never force them. They are members of the family and have the right to take part in such events and attending will often clear up the fantasies and fears they have. If possible, let them take some active part in the service. This makes them feel important and closer to the person who died. Visiting the grave periodically may initiate a discussion of how and what they are feeling.
© 2004 Ralph L. Klicker, Ph.