Parenting Through Tough Times: Talking to Children About Death

Facing the death of a loved one is difficult even for the
most mature, emotionally-adjusted person. Trying to explain it to a child takes a lot of careful explanation,
answering of questions, and the ability to accept that some things just can’t
be fixed. When explaining death to
children, it is important to keep in mind the age of the child, the development
(or maturity) of the child, and the general circumstances involved. Obviously, one doesn’t want to add
unnecessary, grisly details, but it’s also important to make the situation
clear so the child doesn’t think Aunt So-and-so is coming back to see them some
day.

For the young child

Most children under the age of six don’t understand the
finality of death. The concept of
something being “forever” is alien to them, and their mental development doesn’t
allow for that concept. This makes it
difficult for parents to explain that a loved one is truly gone. When speaking with little ones, it is best to
avoid euphemisms such as “gone to a better place” or “on a long vacation”.

It is also best to avoid religious phrases
such as, “gone to the sky,” unless there is an accompanying explanation about
Heaven and God. Young children, being
very literal, will likely honestly believe that the person in question has gone
away or is floating somewhere in the sky. Say something like, “Aunt Jane has died. This means that she stopped breathing and she
can’t talk or hear anymore.”  This can be
followed by more explanation of a religious tone, or can be simply described in
more physical terms. 

It is important at this stage to remember, and to remind a
child, that she might not have strong feelings. Don’t expect a lot of
tears or heartfelt sentiment right away. Because they have so much trouble processing the thought of “forever”,
children at this stage often may take weeks or even months before truly
grasping that a person is really gone. It is important to follow the child’s lead, emotionally, and accept
whatever she is feeling at any given time.

For the intermediate child

Children from age 7-14 understand the concept of death, but
they don’t necessarily have the mental ability to process the implications of
it. These children know what forever means, but
aren’t likely to grasp that this person will no longer see them, be proud of
them, or be able to cheer them on in life. Again, it is best to be direct and concrete, but be prepared to answer
questions, as the intermediate child will generally want more information. Again, there is no need to provide grisly
details. Be prepared to discuss the
death itself, how it impacted the deceased, and how it will affect loved
ones. 

It is important to know, for intermediate children, that
emotions can be intense and can fluctuate quickly. While it can be hard to keep up with mood
fluctuations, it is important to be aware of them and to validate whatever
feeling is current. Intermediate
children are very aware of social responses to their behaviors, and providing
disapproving or inconsistent messages may cause them further confusion and
guilt. 

For the older child

Older children, roughly age 15-18, understand both the finality
and implications of death. They are the
ones who will be most demanding of details, often focusing on minute aspects of
the death. This is a form of processing
the event, and how much is relayed depends on the child’s maturity level and
state of mind. It is important to answer
questions honestly and as fully as possible. Older children are most likely to
spot or sense a lie. When they do, they
will become angry and will isolate themselves from those they feel betrayed by. 

These children will feel most devastated by the loss initially,
and will struggle most in accepting it. It
is important to remember that with grief comes anger, and to try not to take
this personally, as the older child will tend to lash out where it inflicts the
most damage. This means hurting the ones
who love them the most, like parents, grandparents and siblings. Try to be supportive and understanding, but
allow the child some space to vent and cry. 

Every child with deal with death in a slightly different
way. There is a normal process of
grieving, as defined by Elisabeth Kübler Ross, which involves denial, anger,
bargaining, depression and acceptance. This
process can take months to years, but generally follows the same pattern. However, if you notice your child becoming
extremely angry for long periods, or lethargic, or if you see a decreased interest
in daily activities or preferred items, it is important to consult a
professional to see if your child needs help. You can consult a pediatrician, school counselor, therapist, or church official,
as all of these people will likely have some training and experience in working
with death and loss.