In the aftermath of the Paris attacks in 2015, and with everything else that grabs our attention on the news, and of course in every day life; death is something that we must face. For many, death is their biggest fear. But what about children? Certainly they’re aware, to some degree, of what’s going on around them. And children, by their very nature, are curious and they’re going to ask questions. So where does a parent start when it comes to the topic of how to explain death to children? We’re going to look at that topic today and hopefully come up with a few strategies to help.
Your approach to the subject may vary a little depending on your spiritual beliefs. Some cultures actually embrace the subject of death and see it as an opportunity for re-birth and new life. It is important that you consider your spiritual and emotional beliefs about death and come to fully embrace them before approaching the topic with your children.
This will help you facilitate a more impacting and clear cut conversation when the time arises to talk about death and dying.
How to Explain Death to Children
Have 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, 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 a beloved pet will be coming back or when daddy will be 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 hit by a car or a close friend or relative dying suddenly in a car accident or similar situation.
In the case of a pet, 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 was hit by a car and died from his injuries than to instill false hope that one day Fido will return.
If a close relative is suddenly gone from your life, especially a child’s parent, it can be a mind-numbing experience. Children have expressed guilt over the passing of a parent or close relative. If the child is old enough to understand the circumstances, it is okay to share the details. It is also okay, however, to simply tell the child that the person has passed away.
Children tend to take language literally rather than figuratively, so be sure to use straight language and avoid any euphemisms.
Explain that death and dying are normal parts of life and that everyone will one day die themselves. 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.
Talk with your children about the cycle of life – Consider discussing death with them at a time that you can naturally incorporate it into part of your conversation. Consider for example when the leaves change colors in the fall, and then die off only to grow back in the spring.
Remember to keep things light and easy initially, offering your children ample opportunities to ask questions.
Acknowledge your own feelings – In order for your children to accept death you must first come to terms with it. Children are very sensitive and likely to pick up on your emotional cues about death and dying, thus if you are uncomfortable with the subject they are likely to be too.
Take some time to examine your own feelings and become comfortable with the subject before broaching it with your children.
Be open and honest about feelings – Many parents have a natural instinct to shield their children from the grief associated with death, but this can actually be damaging.
*It is important that you allow your children to understand that death can be sad, and let them know that you are sad if it happens.
*It is important that children learn to express themselves openly and honesty and learn how to release their emotions when necessary.
Remember when teaching children about death and dying that their initial reactions may be very different from what you would expect.
Rather than focusing on the spiritual or emotional aspects of death they may want to know more about the technicalities, such as how someone is buried and where they go.
Remember that this is perfectly normal. Address each question honestly and age appropriately when they surface, and your children will come to have a healthy understanding of the death and dying process.