Tips for Explaining the Concept of Death to Children

By: Myles O'Riordan
Monday, February 8, 2016

Everything has its time, and everything dies. An important part of growing up is realizing and accepting that we have but a limited time on this earth. The problem is, how do you explain this to a small child? If you suffer a loss, be it a grandparent, parent or family friend, your child will have questions about the person sized hole in their life.

Things you need to consider

There are a few factors in deciding how much you should tell your child. Consider how old your child is, how important the deceased was to the child, and how mature the child is before you start explaining death to them. Obviously, you'll know the child better than we do, so you need to trust your own judgment to some extent.

“Even infants and toddlers have the capacity to grieve,” says Linda Goldman, a Maryland-based grief therapist who specializes in children. Children are aware of when those around them are sad, and they are very empathetic. Don't underestimate their intelligence, emotional or otherwise.

Honesty is often the best policy

Young children especially tend to think in literal terms, so telling them that a loved one "went away" or "went to sleep" could accidentally make them afraid to go to sleep or worried whenever someone goes away. At the same time, you need to be careful with how much to share.

Donna Maria Johnson had a very good way of explaining her father's death to Vanessa, then 5, and Brooks, then 3: "when people get very old, their bodies stop working, just like when a toy's batteries run out." Be sure to make sure that they understand that you can't change the batteries, like you can a toy. There are other ways of explaining, like talking about leaves changing color during autumn and winter. Take what you know about the child and use it to best explain the concept.

If you are a religious family, your child may find comfort in being told their loved one is watching over them from the afterlife, and even allow you to share thoughts and ideas with them about the afterlife in a healthy way.

Mourning

A death is shocking for everyone, and emotions run high in the aftermath. Many psychologists extol the virtues of sharing your emotions with loved ones, but where a child is concerned, you need to be careful about over-sharing and distressing the child. Talk to them honestly about your feelings, and listen to theirs, and be sure to remind them of the good times they had with their loved ones. Teach them that what they're feeling is normal, natural and healthy, and how to regulate their emotions safely.

 

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