Death - Explaining Death to a Child
by Dr. Brown
If you’re looking at this page, you’re obviously in a troublesome position and may be unsure on how to discuss a very difficult issue to a loved one. There is a good bit written about this topic, but most of the information contains rather vague ideas about how children perceive death, their feelings, etc. In this section, I’d like to give some salient points and talking points (see below) for your discussion with your child. Of course, each child is unique and should be treated individually. It’s not “fair” to give the same explanation to the whole family. How you break the news needs to be individualized. Your explanation to your 12 year old should be totally different from the explanation given to a 4 year old.
Please also see: Death - Supporting Others After the Death of a Child on this website
Until about age 5, younger children don’t really appreciate the finality of death. So, don’t be surprised or get frustrated if after you have your discussion(s), the child still asks when grandpa is coming back. You haven’t done a bad job at explaining, its just how children this age perceive things.
Between ages 5-9, most children begin to realize the finality of death, but it is not “personal”. Death becomes somewhat symbolic and children create “images” of death such as skeletons, etc. Children in this age range feel that they can escape death through their own ingenuity. In other words, it becomes more of a “concept” to understand than a real thing.
Children from about age 10 through adolescence really begin to comprehend the irreversibility of death, and it now becomes personal – i.e.: it can happen to me!
Depending on your child’s age, death may be made more comprehensible by explaining it in terms of the absence of familiar life function: When people die, they no longer breathe, talk, sleep, or eat. When dogs die, they don’t run or bark anymore.
If your child asks, or if she is ready, state the reasons for the death as simply as possible. “Grandpa was very sick. A sickness that the doctors couldn’t help with. His body couldn’t work anymore.”
Express Your Emotions:
Be careful not to hide your emotions. Children are good at sensing if something is wrong. Hiding may only make the child more apprehensive and worried that something else or even more serious is going on.
You need to talk about this sensitive issue. Be careful to not overwhelm your child: be short, concise, and to the point. Too much information may confuse a child. Children may fantasize if given too much incomprehensible information. If you sense your child does not want to talk about the issue at that particular time, then talk later!
It’s important that you listen to your child’s questions and answer what he or she asks, don’t “interpret” what she said. Consider this example:
Mary, a four year old, was devastated when there was a fire at her neighbor’s house. She was acting out, couldn’t sleep, and didn’t want to leave her mom’s side. Her parents knew she was fearful because of the fire. So, they sat down, went through an entire evacuation procedure, drew pictures, walked though the plan, told her where to go, etc., etc. She still was scared and not sleeping well. The parents went over the plan again in more detail and even had a pretend fire drill. For weeks, little Mary was still not able to go to sleep. The parents kept reassuring her and had everyone else join in. Finally, after 2 months, her mom finally asked Mary what she was worried about. Mary’s answer? “Well, who is going to get my doll if there’s a fire?” After the parents made a plan for the doll’s rescue, Mary finally was back to normal. Moral of the story? Ask your child what she’s worried about. Don’t assume you know!!!
If religion has played a significant role in your family, then you may be able to explain death in religious terms. However, the sudden introduction of religious references can be confusing to a child. Be careful if you say “Baby sister is with God now” or “God wanted her”. Statements like these can obviously arouse fear that God can take the surviving child.
Opportunities To Talk About Death:
It’s best to talk to your child when there is less emotional involvement. In preparation, you can talk to your child about dead flowers, birds, etc. If your child says, well “I’m never going to die”, that’s just fine, don’t contradict him or her. It’ll open up a dialogue for a future date.
Visiting the Hospital / Attending a Funeral:
If the child is old enough to understand the situation, then it is probably good to allow the child to do so. However, be prepared to leave if the child gets overwhelmed. If possible, the child should be accompanied by someone who is calm and able to help him work things through. Obviously preparation for what the child will see at the hospital or funeral is essential.
Phone calls and notes to the sick are great – however, do not insist the child do this. In case your child is not ready, don’t inadvertently instill a sense of guilt that “grandma would really like it”. Ask him if he’d like to write a note.
A child’s life should return to pretty much normal within 6 months after a death. If not, you may want to seek help for that child.
Helping to Cope:
Give your child some concrete ways to remember the deceased such as:
- give a picture of the deceased to the child (preferably one of the child with the deceased) to recall good memories
- light a special candle at home
- draw a picture of grandpa and the child or anything else
- visit the grave or another special place to plant flowers
- draw a picture (on rice paper which is bio-degradable) and leave on the grave; tell her the pictures will go into the sky to become a rainbow
- write a note, attach it to a balloon and release it into the sky for grandpa to read in heaven or in the clouds
WHAT TO SAY
Here are some suggestions on what to say. Take your pick or make up your own after reading these suggestions. You need to tailor your delivery to your own child’s state of mind, age, and understanding.
DO SAY: “Grandpa died last night in the hospital. His body stopped working.”
DO SAY: “Grandpa died last night. He isn’t coming back to see us. But, he will always be in our hearts.”
DO SAY: “Grandpa’s body stopped working last night. He is dead.”
DO SAY: “Grandpa died last night. He is not coming back. He didn’t want to go away from you because he loved you so much, but he is not coming back.”
Wait for a reply, and then give a short concise answer to the exact question your child responds with.
Be careful when discussing an illness:
DON’T SAY: “Grandpa was very sick.” Your child may fear getting sick himself, or a parent getting ill.
DO SAY: “Grandpa was sick. Lots of people get sick, but most people get better. Remember when you had a bad cold and you got better? But grandpa was sick with a grown-up illness. One that the doctors could not help with.”
DON’T: use terms for sleep, i.e.: “rest in peace”, “eternal rest”, “he is sleeping forever now”.
A child may refuse to go to sleep, or be scared of sleep, fearing he may never wake up
DON’T: use expressions to express that the deceased “went away”
Future brief separations such as going to work may worry the child
If you don’t have an answer for something:
DON’T: give an answer just to satisfy your child – it may confuse him worse.
DO SAY: “I just don’t have an answer for that.”
DO SAY: “I really don’t know, what do you think?”
If your child sees you or someone else crying:
DON’T: Try to hide the emotion, or make an excuse.
DO SAY: “Uncle Joe is crying because he is sad Aunt Julie has died. He misses her very much. We all feel sad when someone we care about dies.”
DO SAY: “Grown-ups need to cry sometimes. I’m sad that I’m going to miss grandma.”
If your child asks “When will you die?”:
DO SAY: “Are you worried that I won’t be here to take care of you?”
DO SAY: “I don’t expect to die for a long time. I expect to be here to take care of you for as long as you need me. But if daddy died, there are lots of people to take care of you like mommy, aunt Julie, or grandma.
If your child asks “Will we ever be happy again?”
DO SAY: “Yes. I am sad now that grandpa is dead, but, I’m so happy that you and daddy are with us. I might be sad for a while, but we will be happy again.”
DO SAY: “Do you think we will ever be happy again?”
This will enable you to get a better idea of your child’s worries
Be careful to not over-generalize:
DON’T SAY: “Only old people die”
This can lead to distrust when a child learns that young people die also.
DO SAY: “Uncle Joe lived a long time before he died. Most people live a long time, but some don’t. I expect you and I will both live a long time.”
Be careful to not send “mixed messages”:
DON’T SAY: “Grandpa is happy now” or “he is in a better place” while shedding tears.
DO SAY: (If you do begin to shed tears) “It’s good that grandpa is safe now, but it makes mommy sad sometimes when I think about him not being here.”
Be careful when you talk about the deceased:
DON’T: Over-idealize the deceased, especially if it is a sibling that has died.
This can lead to feelings of unworthiness, guilt (that I’m still alive and he’s not), even jealousy (mom loved him more than she loves me) in the surviving child. The surviving child may think that he can never be as good or perfect in your eyes.
DO SAY: “I love all of you and would be sad if any of you were gone.”
Be careful with religious explanations:
DON’T SAY: “Mary is happy now, because she’s in heaven.”
The child may think: How can Mary be happy if everyone around me is so sad?
DON’T SAY: “Mary was so good that God wanted her with him”
The child may think: If God wanted to take Mary, will he take me? Should I be good so that I can be in heaven also, or be bad and stay with mom and dad?
DO SAY: “We’re so sad that Mary isn’t here with us, and we’ll miss her. It’s good to know that she’s with God now.”
Reassure the child that we will always remember the deceased:
DO SAY: “We will always remember grandpa’s love. You can always go in your heart to remember him and feel his love.”
DO SAY: “He will live inside our memories and hearts. It will hurt us sometimes to think about him being gone, but we will remember the good times.”
DO SAY: “Whenever you want to talk about him, let me know.”
Be good to yourself. The more you help yourself cope, the better you will be able to help your child cope
BOOKS TO READ WITH YOUR CHILD:
Please take a look at these to see which one(s) would be appropriate for your child:
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown, Little, Brown
The Saddest Time by Simon and Jacqueline Rogers, Albert Whitman
What’s Heaven? By Maria Shiver, Golden Books
A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith, HarperCollins
I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas, Barron's Educational Series
Death of a Pet:
Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, Scholastic
Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant, Scholastic
The Tenth of Good Thing About Barney by Judith Voirst, Atheneum
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm, Dragonfly Books