If you were to list your favorite aspects of parenting, teaching a child about death would likely not be in your top 10. That's because death is such a painful topic, even for adults.
But parenting experts remind us that children of almost all ages have seen some form of death and should feel free to talk about it. Giving your child information about death can prepare them for crises and help them cope with loss and grief. What to say and when to say it have a lot to do with their developmental stage.
What your child may understand about death
Death is a complicated phenomenon even with regard to preschoolers. If your child is younger than five, they may believe that death isn't permanent.
Yet if a person's death causes a major sense of loss in your household, your preschooler may feel a sense of guilt. They may believe that the person died, whether by choice or by accident, because of something they did. And when preschoolers do feel grief, they may not have the verbal skills to express their emotions.
Ages five to nine
By the time they reach third or fourth grade, your child likely is beginning to grasp that death is permanent. But they don't necessarily think about their own mortality. Researchers have noted that children as old as seven will display negative behavior when they go through a loss. Trouble is, they still can't find the words to talk about their feelings.
Age nine to adolescence
By now, your child likely sees that death is permanent and that it happens to everyone — even themselves. If they went through the death of a loved one in the past, they may grieve again. Their more advanced mental and emotional capacities may lead them to do so.
These insights about what your child may understand about death can help direct your conversation. Remember, though, that all children develop at a different pace. Your child's thoughts about death may be different from those of another child of the same age.
Talking to your child about death
When you start a conversation about death with your child, keep their stage of development in mind. Also consider looking for opportunities to talk about death — for example, the death of flowers, birds, or goldfish — when your family is not grieving.
But if you are grieving, how your child expresses grief may depend on their relationship with the person who died. The following tips are bound to help:
Use honest, concrete expressions
By describing someone who died as being on a long journey with no plans to return, you send the wrong message to your child. A dead person doesn’t go anywhere. Talking about "eternal rest" may cause a child to fear naptime.
Instead, try a statement like this one: "I have a bit of sad news for you. Pop-Pop died late last night". Depending on your child's age, your follow-up may be to tell them that the person's heart and body stopped working.
Be direct and realistic in your phrasing. But remember that an adult sense of realism — reflected in a comment like "he was so sick" — may confuse your child. They want to trust that they will get well when they're sick.
Provide nonverbal support too
When you tell your child about someone's death, pause for a moment to gauge their reaction. Prepare to field questions, to hold them if they cry, or to just stay quietly with them while they process.
Adopt a "less Is more" attitude
Unlike adults, kids process death in small bits and pieces. While you may explain everything in honest and concrete words, your child may still ask when the person is coming back.
Be patient and provide just enough straightforward info — again. Repeat as necessary. Allow your child's questions to guide how much you say.
Prepare your child for next steps
Support your child emotionally by explaining what might happen next. This may include:
- How they'll be cared for even if you have to be available to other loved ones
- What will happen at the funeral itself
- That it's okay for them to share memories of the deceased person, for as long as they need to
- That they should let you know if they need help
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Navigating funeral services
The subject of the funeral service looms large in any discussion about death you may have with your child. Parenting specialists are in favor of letting a child weigh in on whether they should gather with family and attend services, from viewing to burial. When it comes to funeral services, you may want to prepare your child for:
- Who will be in attendance
- How the attendees will be feeling
- How the body will look
- What the various parts of the service will be like
- What people may say to them, and what they can say in return
If possible, ask someone likely to remain calm at the funeral to pay special attention to your child, to talk to them about what's going on.
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American Counseling Association: “Children and Grief: Developmentally Speaking.”?
European Journal of Educational Sciences: “Childhood Grief and Loss.”?
Kids Health: “Helping Your Child Deal With Death.”?
NIH Clinical Center: “Talking to Children about Death.”
NPR: “Be Honest and Concrete: Tips or Talking to Kids About Death.”?
Psychology Today: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking with a Child about Death.”?
Raising Children Network: “Death: how to talk about it with children.”?
Western Journal of Medicine: “'What do we tell the children?' Understanding childhood grief.”
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