Explaining death to a child is not an easy task, especially when the death was of a close friend or family member. Often with good intent, adults avoid talking about death around children as a form of protection. However, this often creates confusion and difficulty in long-term understanding. It’s challenging to deal with losing a loved one even as an adult, so it’s not hard to imagine that a child, with little understanding or experience of the topic, could be overwhelmed by it. Yet, death is an inevitable part of life, and to safeguard a child from the negative emotions attached to the experience requires knowledge on how to navigate the topic.
Avoid the metaphors
As adults, we’ve become used to using euphemisms to describe death. Some of the many terms we use to describe the departure of a loved one are “passed away”, “crossed over”, “gone to a better place”, “went to heaven” or “asleep forever”. Yet, according to Psychology Today, these phrases can be confusing for a child. Instead, you’re encouraged to use direct terms: “dead” or “died.”
Explain What Death Means
Telling a child someone died won’t elicit the same response as telling an adult because children’s understanding differs and they don’t attach the same emotions to death as adults do.
You can start by explaining what death means in practical terms, for instance that their body has stopped working, and this means you won’t be able to see them again. Also explain that once a person’s body stops working, it can’t start again.
Share information in doses. Decide what your child can handle by giving information in small bits at a time. Based on the questions your child asks you’ll know what more to do or say. Be comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”
Clarity Why Others Could Cry, Be Sad, or Experience Grief
Depending on the child’s age, they may not understand what grief entails, as it can be a complex emotion. Rather than say for the next few weeks or months someone will be “grieving,” explain to them the precise emotions and actions accompanying grief.
Explain that people may feel sad and cry or want to be alone. Explain that people may become angry or lose their temper quickly. Clarify that these actions aren’t the result of the child’s behaviour, but because the person is sad they won’t ever get to see the one who died ever again.
Remove Any Internalized Guilt
Children often internalize the feelings of those around them, blaming themselves that others are feeling sad. Don’t let such feelings fester – reassure them that the person did not “go away” because of what they did, but at the same time allow them to feel emotions, regardless of what they are. It may help if you allow your child to participate in rituals. Let children pick clothing, photos for the memorial, a song, or something that they know the person they have lost would have liked. This will help them gain a sense of control over what has happened.
Describe the Next Steps
Funerals, wakes and memorial services can be challenging for a young mind to understand. Before thrusting them into such events, describe what is going to happen on that day, to give the child an idea of what to expect. Tell them what happens at a funeral, wake, or memorial service, why people have such events and why people may cry or become emotional.
When describing death to a child, take time to discuss this topic. You won’t flesh out the subject in one conversation or discussion. Instead, they may have more questions depending on their age and understanding at that stage. Here, patience and understanding are key. It’s also vital that when you don’t know the answer to something or don’t know how to describe a situation, you relay that you don’t know.
Prepare your child for the future without your loved one. Talk about how it will feel to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and special moments without them and ask your child to help plan how to move through the next calendar event.
As a final note, be prepared to talk about thoughts and feelings often. It is likely that you’ll have to answer a few unexpected questions from time to time, so check in and be available for ongoing discussions. Mourning is a process and everybody handles it differently. Everyone grieves in their own way. Recognize that time is needed to readjust. If you need additional support, reach out to your child’s school, physician, or a therapist trained in bereavement.
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