Explaining Death To Children

by Melanie on October 1, 2013

explaining death to children

In loving memory ~ “Uncle Jungle.”

We began our new theme in tot school this week and I am eager to share what we’ve been doing, but it will have to wait another week. Just as we were getting back into the groove of tot school, which we’d taken a bit of a break from due to our move, something tragic and unexpected happened that brought out-of-town company into the schoolroom-turned-guestroom.

This won’t be the easiest post to write or the most joyful one, by any means, but it is an inescapable part of reality and it wouldn’t be fair to have a blog devoted to teaching children if I wasn’t willing to broach this topic.

We lost a family member.

As hard as it is for us adults to cope with the death of a loved one, it is equally as hard to explain death to children. How can we be teachers while we are mourning? Sometimes it is during life’s most difficult circumstances that learning occurs the most. Sometimes it is during our most challenging times that we make the best, most genuine teachers.

Rocket knew his Uncle Jungle the most from our days going to the same church. He’s not even 2 yet, so I’ve been asking myself, What is the best way of explaining death to a toddler?

As I try my best to comfort the tears and bereaving spirits of our hurting family members while also dealing with my own emotions, I also have to find a way to make my toddler understand why he will never see Uncle Jungle again.

It’s not easy.

Rocket has been to a funeral before, but it was that of a person he’d never met, so there was no true comprehension of what was happening.

This time, it’s different. He knows exactly who his uncle is. What he doesn’t quite understand is why he will never see him again.

I’ve composed a list of things I’ve found helpful in explaining death to a child. I hope that no one needs the information I provide here for a long time, but that it can make life a little bit easier for others who are going through this inevitable experience, whenever that time comes.

 

7 Tips For Explaining Death To Children

1) Be honest.

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, children are very capable. They are capable in the sense of accomplishing motor tasks, performing various actions, thinking outside the box, and comprehending difficult concepts.

I’ve expressed my belief time and time again on Teach What Counts that we should treat our children with respect, because they are capable and how we behave towards them will directly impact whether or not they have confidence in their own capabilities.

So first, don’t be afraid to tell them the truth. There is no reason to hide from them the fact that someone important in their lives died, whether it’s a pet or a grandparent. Sheltering them from the truth isn’t going to help them deal with their emotions any better.

There will be limits to their understanding, of course, but honesty is the best start.

We’ve explained to Rocket that Uncle Jungle’s body doesn’t work anymore and that he has died. On a spiritual side, what you explain to your child about death regarding where the deceased is now depends greatly on your own religious views.

Like many children, Rocket has seen dead bugs on the sidewalk, dead birds at the park, and dead possums in the backyard, so his introduction to death had already begun.

Observing the lifelessness of a dead body is a good start in teaching children about death, but the tricky part comes with teaching them how permanent that lifelessness is. Grasping the permanence of death should not be expected right off the bat with toddlers or preschoolers; it will take time for them to understand.

Understanding death, in truth, is a lifetime’s mission. How much do we really understand death, even as adults?

The fact is, the reality of death is hard for grown-ups to “get,” just as it is for children. We spend our whole lives trying to understand it better, so there is no reason to keep your child from the first steps in that journey even at a young age.

2) Don’t speak in euphemisms.

“He passed away.” “He’s crossed over.” “She’s resting in peace.” “She is in eternal sleep.” “We lost Granny.”

Euphemisms are useful in communicating with adults, but children tend to take things far more literally.

These abstract thoughts don’t make it easy for children to understand what’s happening. While always spoken with good intentions, euphemisms just confuse children about what is going on.

Not only that, but they cause children to worry unnecessarily. If Grandpa has “gone away forever,” maybe Dad will never come back when he goes away to work. If Great Aunt Marie is “sleeping eternally,” what if we never wake up from our sleep? This euphemism can lead to sleep disturbances, nightmares, or sleep resistance in young children. Sleep and death should not be tied together in the minds of young children; they are two very different things.

Be direct and to-the-point with children or their imaginations will fill in the blanks for them.

3) Explain the process of death.

Everyone’s body eventually shuts down. Our hearts stop working. We no longer feel hungry or cold or hot. We no longer talk or move. Usually, this doesn’t happen until we’re old, but sometimes it happens earlier than expected because of illnesses or accidents.

It’s important to explain the cycle of life and death to our children so that they know they weren’t purposefully abandoned by their loved one. The deceased did not choose to die (unless it was a suicide); it just happens.

It’s also important to explain this natural process so that they don’t blame themselves. It was nothing that they did that made the person die. It just happens to everyone eventually.

Be prepared for a child to express fear that they too will die. Make sure they know that healthy children usually live for a very long time and that they most likely have years and years and years ahead of them.

Also be prepared for a child to express fear that you will die. Let them know that while you will eventually, you too are likely going to be around for a very long time, even after they grow to be adults themselves!

4) Remember and reminisce.

Memorialize the life of the deceased.

Talk about their personality, their effect on your lives, and the time you got to spend together while they were alive. Try to focus on the positive times, but if there are less than positive things your child wants to discuss, don’t refrain them. They probably need closure.

Encourage children to talk about the person who died as much as you can.

This is an important part of the mourning process for children and adults alike.

Encouraging a child to draw a picture or write a story (for older children) in remembrance of their loved one can be a good way to memorialize that person and help the child cope with their emotions through creative expression.

5) Embrace your own emotions.

Don’t hold back tears or “try to be strong” by not showing any emotions. Emotions are NOT a sign of weakness. Tears and sorrow are a very natural and healthy part of bereavement. You don’t want to inadvertently teach your child through your own example to repress emotions; bottled-up feelings can cause long-term emotional problems that last a lifetime.

Of course I’m not saying that your toddler should be your shoulder to cry on. It IS important not to overwhelm them with excessive mourning. But at the same time, don’t pretend it’s easy for you if it’s not either. Remind them that it’s okay to be sad when you miss someone.

6) Encourage children to express their feelings.

If your child sobs or throws temper tantrums because they can’t see their deceased relative, show them love and understanding. Don’t yell at them or reprimand them for their off-behavior, no matter how frustrating it may be.

There is no “right” or “wrong” response in coping with the death of a loved one. As long as they aren’t hurting anyone or themselves, children should be allowed to grieve in their own way. The bond that they shared with that person was a unique relationship that you only witnessed from the outside. The bereavement process for them, then, may be very different than the one for you or anyone else in the family. It is a very personal process.

Many parents try to “rescue them from hurting” by softening the issue, dodging their children’s questions, or changing the subject. They mean well, but these things are not how the situation should be handled. Hurt is healthy when someone dies. It should not be stifled.

One way parents try to protect their children is by saying, “Don’t be sad. Uncle Joe is in a better place now.” It’s crucial to be mindful of our words as we comfort our young ones. Telling kids not to be sad can make them feel like sadness is an inappropriate response, even if you are just trying to be comforting. Instead, assure them that, “It’s okay to be sad.”

Listen to them talk and validate their feelings. If they say, “I miss Grandpa,” ask them what they miss the most about Grandpa. It’s healthy for them to get their feelings out and have someone to confide in about their memories and their worries.

7) Talk to children about what will happen next.

Explain what will happen at the funeral, if you are taking them. Prepare them for seeing people cry, tell stories, laugh, hug each other, and even get angry. There is a heightened sense of emotions at funerals and while I don’t think children should be sheltered from that environment, I do think they should know what to expect before they walk into it.

Also talk to them about how their lives will change as a result of the death.

If it’s their own father or mother, you may have a lot of talking to do to offer them comfort and assure them that they’ll be loved and taken care of. If it’s a friend or a relative, you may have to let them know that you won’t be visiting that person anymore, but you will be able to visit the grave in their memory.

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Ultimately, it is our place as parents to be there for our children when they need us- physically and emotionally. They are learning, every step of the way. We don’t take a break as teachers when life’s most unexpected circumstances arise.

On the contrary, we are called to be teachers in those instances more than ever. Tot trays and crafts are just the vehicles that help us relay lessons to our children. Meaningful conversations and life experience cannot be replaced in the world of learning. We can’t shield our children from sadness, but we can teach them how to cope with their emotions- and that is a skill that can serve them throughout their lives.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dorothy Inman October 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I am so sorry for your family’s loss. What a difficult time for you, especially trying to explain it to your son. These are great, sensitive tips that any parent can use to explain something that is so difficult. I think it is so important to be honest with your children and not lie (or omit what happened). I remember when a pet died and a neighbor wasn’t honest with me about it and later I wondered why they didn’t tell me the truth. Thank you for sharing.

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