Explaining Death to Children
What Is Death?
What is death? What does Dead Mean?
These questions are some of the hardest for parents to answer, especially because most have not examined their own feelings, emotions and belief systems around death and dying. Many of the parents I teach in parenting classes tell me that the only questions they dread more are about sex!
How Do You Explain Death To a Child?
If you have religious beliefs that bring you comfort and you want to explain death in that concept, you still need to phrases answers so the child has an accurate understanding. Parents and caring adults need to remember that young children tend to take words and explanations literally since they have difficulty thinking in the abstract. So when you say "God loved your dad so much, He took him to heaven" the young son may worry that God will love him that much too. A daughter may worry that her loved was insufficient and so she is being punished.
Where Do People Go When They Die?
If you are comfortable with explaining that life is eternal and we go to heaven, then do so. My personal belief is that earth life is a part of a cycle and the spirit lives on even though the body is no longer needed. To explain to our grand daughter, I used the analogy of the hand in a glove. It was not the glove (body) that was moving but rather the spirit (hand). The glove's use is done for right now, but the spirit moves on to another plane of existence.
I also asked her how she felt when she knew that we were 500 miles away and she could not see us. Did she think we still loved her? Could she feel our love even when we could not talk or communicate? Did she feel secure that we would reunite at some point? She was relieved to know that just as seeds sleep in the ground in the winter (they have a lovely garden) they come again when the time is right.
What If Child Is Afraid
Once again it is wise to think about what you are going to say. If you tell your child that "Grandpa just went to sleep" they may be fearful of going to bed. If you have an opportunity to speak about death when it is not someone they know closely, they will be able to put death into a context they can understand. Very young children think that only old people die, unless they have personal experience and may be fearful that their parents are getting old and will die soon.
If a beloved pet dies, be sure to include the child in the decisions about burial or having a memorial ceremony. Help them to be reassured they are safe and that you will protect them to the best of your ability.
You will want to check out http://www.DeathOfMyPet.com for great resources.
Questions for you to ponder:
- How do you feel about death? What does the word mean to you?
- How was death taught to you as a child? Do you remember losing a pet?
- What are your views on Heaven or an Afterlife?
- How old were you when you attended your first funeral?
This is a difficult subject for families to discuss, but it is an important part of life and the subject is best dealt with before a death occurs. Hopefully, this will open dialog between you and your child about death and dying.