Discussing death with your children can, undoubtedly, be tricky. Death is, however, an inevitable part of life and it’s our responsibility to ensure our children are aware of it and know it’s okay to talk about.
If we allow our children to talk about death, we can give them the information they need and help them when they’re upset. We can encourage their communication by showing our respect for what they’ve got to say and ask.
Death is very much part of our lives on so many different levels, and we may be surprised at how aware our children already are on the matter. They read about death in fairy tales and see it in cartoons. Without realising it they almost certainly already have some exposure to the concept, so let’s try to make it easier for them to understand.
When to talk to children about death
This can be a difficult decision to make – and this depends on the maturity and sensitivity of your child. If you’ve not had the chat before, there’s plenty of advice online on the topic of passing of a loved one,
If you have more than one child in your family, you might want to talk to the children together if it would help – or you might want to speak to them individually if there’s a big age range and you want to tailor your message to the maturity of your children.
What to say
Your child needs your help to understand death, so it’s best to explain what’s happened as simply as you can. Don’t be afraid to tell them the truth straight away, they need to know and you’ll only be storing up a problem by skirting around the facts.
The truth gives an explanation of your tears and pain. Just be prepared for your child to get upset, and perhaps angry at their loss. Accept your child’s emotional reaction and comfort them – your reassurance will be a big help to them.
Being open and using the word death can avoid problems. Saying the words ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ can confuse them. For example, telling a child their ‘Grandma has gone to sleep forever’, might make them scared of sleeping at night through fear of never waking up.
Try to explain what’s happened as best you can – children will understand what you mean by someone’s ‘body stopping working – and be prepared for further questions down the line. You might need to explain things a couple of times.
If you feel uncomfortable talking about death, you might need to practice with another adult first. You can go through what you’re going to say and how you’ll answer your child’s questions. Or you might even want to write down some notes as reminders. It’s okay not to know the answers to everything, you can explain you’re unsure but will try to find out for your child.
How to answer questions about death
When someone dies, your child will have questions. These are some that they may ask:
Why did they die?
Your child is trying to make sense of death here. They want to know what caused death, so try to answer the question at their level. For example, ‘Grandma’s heart was very old, the doctors tried to fix it, but they couldn’t’.
Will you die? Will I die?
Your child might start to realize that people they love could die. It’s a good idea to let them know that most people die from various healthcare issues when they’re really old and very sick.
If the death you’re talking about involves a young person, let your child know that this doesn’t happen very often.
What happens when you die?
How you answer this question could depend on your family’s religious or spiritual beliefs. Talk to them about your chosen beliefs and let them explore what you and your family believe.
Many people find comfort in giving their child something to focus on when thinking about the person who has died. For example, ‘every time you see a star in the sky, think of Grandma’.
Explaining death to your child doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Just be honest, calm, and considerate.