Talking to children about death may seem like a daunting task but it doesn't have to be scary. Explaining death to children in terms they understand isn't as difficult as you may think.
4 Essentials When Discussing Death
There are four key things to keep in mind when discussing death with your child.
- Keep it age appropriate.
- Keep it honest.
- Keep it true to your family's values and beliefs.
- Keep it open for discussion, even if it means discussing other beliefs.
Age Appropriate Explanations of Death
Keep it age appropriate. Children at different age and developmental levels need slightly different explanations of death. This is just a general guide of how to approach different age levels but you may need to tailor it to your child's individual maturity level.
Toddler/Preschool Age: Children at these young ages aren't yet able to understand the permanence of death. If a pet, family member, or friend dies when a child is this young, she may question when the dead person is going to come back. It is appropriate at this stage to continue to remind the child that the dead loved one is not coming back. Keep it honest.
Children at this age may enjoy sharing memories of the deceased through stories and will often express their fears and feelings through creative play and art. Allow your child to express her emotions in these creative ways; she's not yet able to put into words what she is feeling.
You never want to compare death to sleep. As tempted as you might be to say "Grandma went to sleep and will never wake up," don't do it! Children will associate sleep with death if it is explained in this way and you'll have a lot of long nights with a child who is too scared to fall asleep!
School-Age: School-age children are able to understand more abstract ideas and get the permanence of death. You can give more details about death to children as they get older and they may ask more specific questions. It's best to allow your school-age child to guide the conversation, answering questions when asked and only providing as much detail as the child wants to hear. Keep it honest.
As a child gets older, he may begin to look to his peers for support. A friend who has also experienced the death of a special pet or loved one can be a great support to your child but it's important that your values and beliefs about death are discussed at home. Keep it true to your family's values and beliefs.
As children get older, they are introduced to other beliefs outside of the home. Provide your child with a safe place to discuss other beliefs and be prepared to explain why your family believes what you do. Keep it open for discussion, even if it means discussing other beliefs.
With these four basics, you can turn a discussion about death into a meaningful teaching moment with your child.