How to talk to your child about death
Losing someone close can be hard as it is, but it can be especially difficult to explain the concept of death to a young child.
Who wants to raise the issue of death with their kids? Well, none of us actually.
Most parents hesitate to raise the issue because we are afraid that we might “mess it up” for the kids. We worry that we will say the wrong things. So instead of discussing the feelings of sadness, anger or anxiety that often accompany the death of a loved one, we instead shield our kids from these emotions.
But what we fail to realize is that kids absorb far more than what we parents think they do. They have an active imagination and withholding information would only make them think the worst of everything.
A child’s capacity to understand death and your approach to discussing it will vary according to the child’s age. Each child is unique, but below are some rough guidelines to keep in mind to make the journey easier.
Before five or six years old
Kids this age need to be told about death in basic and concrete terms, because their world is very literal at this point. If the person who dies was ill or old; you can explain that the person’s body was just not functioning or working as well as it did and the doctors unfortunately cannot fix the situation.
Kids at this age will always have a very hard time in comprehending the concept of death. They might need you to explain to them many times over on why the person is not coming back. The process will be frustrating especially since you are grieving yourself, but it is something that needs to be done.
It might also be helpful to watch cartoon shows with them that deal with death, such as “The Lion King” or “Bambi”.
Six to ten year olds
Often, kids at this age personify death and think of it as the “boogeyman”, a ghost or a skeleton. They deal best with death when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened. Just remember, there will always be questions.
How to talk to your pre-teen about death? Find out on the next page…
Pre-teens and teenagers
As kids mature into teens, they start to understand that every human-being eventually dies, regardless of grades, behaviour, wishes, or anything they try to do.
As your teen’s understanding about death evolves, questions may naturally come up about mortality and vulnerability. Encourage your teen to share his or her feelings and not to keep them all bottled up.
- Share memories of the deceased. This could be through going through old photographs together or sharing happy memories and stories.
- Give plenty of hugs and comfort. A child of any age would want plenty of comfort from his or her parents when faced with the death of a loved one. So don’t hold back on the affection at this time — you too will probably benefit from it.
- Share your own emotions. Yes, you may want to show your kids that you are strong and holding it together. But it’s okay to share your own emotions with your child which may even involve crying. Tell your child that you are sad and hurting too, but also remember to explain that these feeling will fade over time and soon, you will be left with poignant memories of your loved one who has passed.
As parents, it is natural for you to want to constantly shield your kids from loss and sadness, but you must also remember that losing a loved one is part of the life cycle. Teach your kids how to cope with their emotions instead of avoiding them, and it will be a lesson that will last a lifetime.
Have you ever had to deal with your child about death and loss before? How did you find the experience? Please share your own tips and experiences by leaving a comment below.