Talking to Children About Death
Death is one of the hardest subjects to discuss with children. But it is of course part of life… In order to help, we must let children know it’s okay to talk about it.
By talking with them, we may discover what they know and don’t know, and if they have fears or misconceptions. We can help them by listening to their questions, by providing information, comfort and understanding. Often easier said then done.
What we share with our children about death, and when we share it will depend on their ages and experiences. Much also depends on our own experiences and feelings, and for the particular situation related to death. Discussions regarding it sometimes begin by a report on TV news, and may be relatively unemotional. Other talks come about due to a death within the family, and can trigger great emotion.
Children become aware of death earlier than we may think. They notice dead insects or birds, and animals lying on the side of the road. TV, fairy tales and books, and sometimes acting it out in their play show that at some level kids are aware.
If we encourage children to talk to us about death, we can prepare them for crisis and sadness, and support them through they’re upset. When we are honest and comfortable with our own feelings, it may make their communicating with us easier.
But we often shy away from things that upset us, hide our feelings, thinking that saying nothing is best. Yet not talking about something sends a message as well. Kids notice. They observe the expression on our face, body language, and the tone of our voice. They may think that if their mom and dad can’t talk about something, it must be pretty bad. This can keep them from letting us know how they feel.
Then too, it isn’t wise to share information that they may not yet understand or want to know. As with any sensitive subject, it’s important to find that delicate balance that supports children in sharing their thoughts and feelings. The balance involves:
- being sensitive to their need to talk, when they’re ready
- presenting honest explanations when we are clearly upset
- listening to their questions, acknowledging their feelings
- finding brief and simple answers appropriate to their age and questions
We can feel uncomfortable not having answers to all their questions. Young kids in particular expect parents to be all knowing- even about death. But death, the one certainty in our existence, is also life’s greatest uncertainty. Even if our own feelings about death are fearful or unclear, we can still share what we believe. Where we have doubts, saying, “I just don’t know the answer to that,” may be more comforting than an explanation we don’t quite believe. Children can sense our doubts. Sooner or later they will discover that we are not all knowing. Perhaps we can make that easier for them if we calmly tell them we don’t have all the answers. It may help them feel better about not knowing everything as well.
It used to be that death was less taboo. People died at home. Adults and children mourned together, and comforted one another. Today death is often lonelier, as many people die in nursing homes and hospitals. Loved ones may miss sharing their last moments of life. Therefore death takes on added mystery, and for some perhaps added fear. We are beginning to see that treating death as a taboo is a disservice to both the dying and the living, adding to loneliness, anxiety, and stress for all.
Researchers studying children’s perceptions of death found that two factors seem to be influential – their developmental stages, and their experiences (environments, religious, cultural backgrounds, and personal perceptions).
Problems can arise from children’s misconceptions about death. In Dr. Earl Grollman’s book Explaining Death to Children, he points out that children can confuse death with sleep, especially when they hear adults refer to death with euphemisms such as “eternal rest”, “rest in peace,” or “grandma went to sleep.” As a result, a child may become apprehensive of going to bed. If told grandpa “went away,” and hasn’t come back yet, brief separations may worry them. Also, statements such as, “Only the old die,” or, “Aunt Mary died because she was old,” can be confusing, especially when a child eventually learns that young people die too.
As Dr. Grollman points out, “ A child may ask questions immediately or may respond with thoughtful silence, and come back later with questions. Each question deserves a simple and relevant answer. Checking to see if a child has understood what has been said is critical. Also, children learn through repetition, and they may need to hear the same question answered over and over again. As time passes and children have new experiences, they will need further clarification and sharing of ideas and feelings. It may take time for a child to understand fully the ramifications of death and its emotional implications. A child who knows that Uncle Ed has died may still ask why Aunt Susan is crying. The child needs an answer. “Aunt Susan is crying because she is sad that Uncle Ed died. She misses him very much. We all feel sad when someone we care about dies.”
Children move through stages in understanding death. Preschoolers usually view death as reversible, temporary, impersonal. Seeing cartoon characters rise again after flying off a cliff reinforces this. Between the ages of five and nine, most kids are starting to understand that death is final and that all living things die. But still, they often hold on to the idea they can escape this through their own will and efforts. During this stage they may personify death through association- death might be a skeleton or angel of death. Nightmares are more common. From nine or ten through adolescence, children understand fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they too will die one day. Some begin to look for more philosophical perspectives of life and death. Teens often become more interested in seeking the meaning of life, and fascinated by the process of dying. Others may react to their fear of death by risky behaviors, trying to prove their control over mortality.
No matter how children learn about death, cope with their confusion and sadness, or express their feelings, they need nonjudgmental and sympathetic support from adults. Listening and watching carefully are important ways to respond to a child’s needs. Coming together as a community to grieve and mourn helps us all cope in times of sadness, and in the celebration of one’s life!
There is much more information available regarding topics such as religion and death, children visiting the dying, and children attending funerals.
Go to the Hospice website
Hospice Net’s Children Section
Helping Younger People Cope with Death and Funerals