Monday, July 29, 2013

Explaining Death to Children

[Reviewed and updated June 18. 2023]

Any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn. ~ Alan D. Wolfelt

If this is your family’s first experience with death, you may be wondering how and even whether to include your children in the rituals of grief and mourning for the special person who has died. You may have many questions about how best to meet your children’s needs at such a sad and difficult time. In this first in a series of posts on this topic, I hope to help you answer some of those questions.

Quite simply, what your children need most from you is honesty. They need accurate, factual information and freedom to ask their questions and express their feelings. Whenever possible, they need to be included in decisions, discussions and family commemorative rituals. They need stable, consistent attention from their caretakers. And like the adults around them, they need time to explore and come to terms with the meaning of their loss.

How should I explain death to my children?

Death can be explained to children the same way we explain other important milestones: Offer the facts in a simple, honest, straightforward, non-threatening, caring way.

• Be honest, and keep it simple. Children know when adults are shading the truth.

• First find out what the children already know or think they know about death.

•Validate feelings and encourage children to share their thoughts, fears and observations about what is happening.

• Explain that in the circle of life, all living things will die someday and that death causes changes in a living thing.

• Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away,” “sleeping” and “lost.”

• Explain what dead means: “Grandma died. Her heart stopped beating, and she doesn’t breathe in and out anymore. She doesn’t need to eat or go to the bathroom. She cannot see, hear or move, and she cannot feel pain. Being dead is not the same as sleeping. All your body parts work when you are sleeping. When a person dies, the body has stopped working. The part of Grandma that was alive is gone. All that’s left is her body—like an egg shell without the egg.”

• Explain how we might feel when someone dies: sad, mad, or confused—and we may cry sometimes.

Don’t hide your own feelings. Feeling, showing and verbalizing one’s own pain gives children an example to follow, while holding back implies that feelings are to be suppressed.

Let your children know that grief is a family affair. If your child is willing, let him/her help whenever possible with activities such as:

• Picking out the casket.

• Placing a note, drawing, special object or memento in the casket.

• Selecting clothing, jewelry for the deceased to wear.

• Selecting songs, music, readings.

Listen to what others may be telling your children. Comments such as “Be brave” or “Be strong” are telling a child how to feel. Statements such as “Don’t cry,” “Be extra nice to your mother now,” “You’re the man of the family now,” or “Your daddy wouldn’t want you to be sad” are telling a child how to act. Sometimes children are given conflicting statements: one person may tell the child, “Don’t cry” while someone else may say, “It’s okay to cry; it means we’re sad, we miss Grandma and we love her very much.”

Most people mean well, but sometimes they are simply misguided or uninformed.  Help your child understand why different people feel differently about such matters; explain that what they learned and what they were taught as youngsters may be different from what you are teaching them now.

Acknowledge, too, that sometimes we simply don’t know how we feel, and sometimes we don’t feel anything at all.  Our feelings may come later, and that’s okay, too.

If you're planning to attend a visitation, a viewing, a funeral or a wake, how can you best prepare your children? What do they need to know? For some helpful suggestions, see When Children Attend a Funeral: Some Preparation Tips and Including Children in Rituals of Grief and Mourning: Special Situations.

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