Explaining Death to ChildrenTips from STAR Class author Karen Nilsen for Parents, Family Members, Caregivers, and Social Workers
The days surrounding a death can be a confusing and disorienting time for young children. Altered daily routines and unfamiliar sights and sounds can be difficult for them to understand and cope with. Children notice even the most subtle changes in their routines and surroundings.
When children ask about death, we often use euphemisms such as “passed away” or “Grandpa is sleeping,” or “we lost Grandma” instead of the words “dead” and “died.” These softened explanations can cause fears in a young child that they too may get lost or go down for a nap and never wake up. Or worse yet, as 4-year-old Clayton asked during a STAR Class, “What if I go to sleep and wake up in a casket like my Grandpa?”
Children see the evidence that livings things die in many areas of their lives. They see and hear about it on the television, in movies – even cartoons, and on an ordinary walk in the park or to school, e.g.: a dead bird, a squirrel, or other small animal. They notice the change of the seasons as plants and trees appear to wither and die. They may have experienced the death of a pet. Death causes changes in a living thing. Very young children may not be able to fully comprehend the complexities, but they are aware that death looks and feels different.
Children need simple, honest, and straightforward explanations about death and the funeral process. We can teach our children in the same non-threatening, caring way that we explain other milestones in their lives. We must validate their feelings and encourage them to share their thoughts, fears and observations of the events taking place around them. Most important, I believe, is to first find out what your child already knows about death, then what they think they know, and then provide the facts in simple, honest, terms.
If possible, begin a dialogue with your child about how all living things on this earth will die someday. Death is a reality; we can’t hide it from our children. It is the circle of life. If the situation arises where a plant, pet or animal dies, allow the child to investigate it, see it, touch it, even smell it. With an accepting adult standing close by or holding a child while he/she discovers death on the sidewalk, children often adopt the attitude and the emotion of the adult. Talk about feelings. Share your feelings with your child. Tell him that when someone or something dies, we might feel sad, mad, or confused. And sometimes we might even cry – and that’s okay.
An Easy to Understand Example: A Flower
A readily available example of death in a child’s world is a simple flower. You can show the child a living flower. Point out its qualities of life – e.g., vibrant color, soft velvety petals, strong sturdy stem and enjoyable fragrance. If you want, you may even discuss the flower’s purpose here on earth. It brings us joy, brightens a room, provides food for insects and bees, etc. Then show the child a flower that has died. Compare its qualities to the living flower. The flower has changed. Allow the child to touch and smell the flower.
When talking to a child about the death of a family member or friend, remind them that like the flower, the body of their loved one has changed. It cannot see, or hear, or move. Look through photo albums, talk about special memories and their relationship with the deceased. Read books available for children. Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Reassure them that sad and mad feelings are normal and okay.
Allow them to attend the funeral or memorial service for their special person. Encourage them to write a letter or draw a picture that can be placed in the casket or displayed near the urn. You may want to talk about your family’s faith tradition. Death can be a frightening concept for all of us. But, with loving explanations, acceptance of feelings and an opportunity to express those feelings, a child can begin to understand that death is a part of life.
The Funeral Process: Prepare Them and Involve Them
A funeral director told me the story of a young boy, about 6 years old, who refused to enter the visitation room to view his grandfather. He seemed inordinately upset and frightened. His parents didn’t understand his terror. After taking him aside and talking to him, he said, “I don’t want to see my grandpa without his head!” He had been told that his grandfather’s “body” was at the funeral home, and he took this literally. The body would be present – he deduced that the head would not.
When explaining how the body of the deceased will appear in the casket, I am very specific. I try to cover all the bases. By previewing the room set-up, casket type, special objects present, and the clothing the deceased is wearing, I can prepare the children with the details they will see when we go together to view.
Ten or twenty years from now a child may not remember specific details of the funeral they attended, but they will remember that it was a meaningful, non-threatening experience and that they were actively involved in the final good-bye to their loved one who died.
Too Young to Understand?
I have learned so much about how children conceptualize the mystery of death. I have discovered some of the preconceptions and misconceptions that young children share at various ages. We can read charts and graphs with information about how children perceive and grasp the concept of death, but we must be careful not to draw biased conclusions about children based solely on their age.
When someone tells me that a two-year-old is too young to understand what’s going on or to be involved in the funeral process, I tell the story of Danielle. In a period of six weeks, two-and-a-half-year-old Danielle had experienced the death of both her grandmother and grandfather. When she bravely announced that her grandparents had died, she quickly added, “But, my mommy didn’t die.” What was this child worried about? What was on her little mind? Undoubtedly it was, ‘Is my mommy next?’
Our first instinct is to reassure young children that everything will be okay and not to worry about a parent dying. But, this two-year-old has learned that special, loved people do die. We would lose our credibility if we were to make a promise like that. With small children, I believe it is important to deal with the here and now, i.e.: ‘Today your mommy and daddy are alive and well and here to love you and care for you. There will always be someone to take care of you.’