Talking to Children About Death

Most of us find it difficult to talk to our children about death, but unfortunately they will experience it sometime in their lives. Death is inescapable and we must let our children know that it’s okay to talk about it and it’s part of the life cycle. If we are open, honest and comfortable with our own feelings and show interest and respect in what they have to say, we can make it easier for them.

Begin by asking open-ended questions to solicit their thoughts and feelings. Instead of worrying about what to say, try to create opportunities for your bereaved child to talk to you about death. When answering your children’s questions, make sure you understand what they are asking by referring questions back to them. This can help clarify their specific concerns, and can help you figure out what’s bothering them. For example, if a child asks what will happen to grandpa now that he has died? You might say, “What do you think will happen to grandpa?” If he/she says something about going to heaven to be with grandma, you may respond, “That’s a beautiful thought”, avoid detailed explanations of how the body will be buried in the ground and then eventually decompose and become part of a new cycle in nature where new plantings will begin to grow. Yes, such detail would be an overload for any child. Their questions should help guide the discussion. When they’re ready for more detail, they’ll come back to you with more questions.

Where to Begin?

Begin by exploring your own assumptions and beliefs about life and death. Has anyone close to you died? What did their death mean to you? How did people help you? Recognize the varying religious beliefs held by many people and remember that just as kids wonder about life they also wonder about death. They should be taught that death is part of life, just as being born, eating, drinking, sleeping, laughing are part of life. A number of books are available to further assist you to stimulate discussion. Saying Goodbye by Jim & Joan Boulden is a great book for elementary school grades. Draw It Out is a well-done therapeutic activity book for elementary-aged children who are experiencing grief and loss. It helps them ask questions they may be afraid to ask, label and express feelings that can often be difficult for them. Discuss with them what caused the death. For example, if it was cancer you can clarify that it was a serious illness, and the doctors did everything they could. Reassure them that although we all get sick once in a while, we usually get better. Children may also begin to think that this can happen to you too. They may need reassurance that you don’t expect to die for long time, and that you are here to take good care of them, as long as they need you. For older children you may want to explain that cancer is a disease in which the body’s cells become abnormal, they grow and reproduce without control. While there are many forms of cancer that are cured, unfortunately this type of cancer spread too fast to many parts of the body and the deceased could not be cured. This type of illness is not like the one kids often experience like a flu, a cold or a sore throat. Reassure them that they had nothing to do in causing the illness, it is not contagious and they certainly could not stop it in any way.

Avoid taking any specific religious stand on how you explain death. You can share your faith as faith, not fact. The facts about death are actually rather limited. We know the body ceases to function and the person is no longer able to breath, eat, drink, sleep or do any of the things that people who are living can do. Use examples children understand from nature or their everyday life, such as the seasons, trees without leaves. Explain to them that we can visit the remains of the deceased, but the life of the person, often called the soul or the spirit, is no longer present. Some believe that after our death, we will be reunited in heaven with God. Avoid saying that God took her away or the deceased is looking upon us because that can cause more fear and worry if they do something wrong and the deceased and God is looking. This can also foster resentment why God had to take their loved one from them. If a child is told that his mother was ready to die and be with God because she was hurting so bad, he might feel abandoned and become angry with his mother for choosing to leave him. Often adults tell adolescents to “be strong” for their parent. This can leave the adolescent with no appropriate outlet for their intense feelings of grief. In addition, you may want to avoid confusing kids with expressions such as, “rest in peace” or “grandpa went to sleep”, as they may become afraid of going to bed.

Consider the child’s developmental level

Children’s understanding of death goes through a series of stages. Preschoolers may view death as reversible or temporary. After all they see cartoons on TV get crushed flat on the ground, and then get back up and continue to run. Between the age of 5 and 9 they begin to realize that death is final and that all living things eventually die. However, they still cannot relate to death as a personal event or that it could happen to them. By the age of 10 they fully understand that death is irreversible and they can die too, like all living things.

We know from research that grief has no relation to “understanding”, but rather is a feeling response. It’s been said that when a child is able to love, then a child can grieve. The collection of grief emotions can include numbness, shock, fear, guilt, longing, disorganization, inattention, sadness, shame, panic, anger and despair. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross simplified understanding the grief process by categorizing these emotions into five stages.

The five stages of grief are:

  • Denial. Not believing what is taking place, “this can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger. A deep-seated rage over what is happening. The anger is often displaced in all directions, friends, family or God, “why me.”
  • Bargaining. An attempt to exchange something we are willing to give up, for something we want to keep. It is usually an attempt to postpone or fix up the inevitable, “If only…” or “what if.”
  • Depression. A feeling of being unable to cope, helplessness, life seems overwhelming, usually is experienced when the reality of the situation sets in, “what’s the use.” A lot of regrets come to mind, “I should of” or “I could of”.
  • Acceptance. Learning to live with change. It is a time when the past is no longer pondered and the future begins to be hopeful again, “yes this happened, I’m not happy about it but life goes on.”

While it’s important to move through each of the five stages of grief, they don’t have to be experienced in any order and over a specific period of time. Kids in particular do not have the maturity to follow any particular pattern, and they all develop at their own individual rate. It can take years and all we can do is remind ourselves that the process is very personal, and it requires our patience and caring for one another.

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