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Death through the eyes of a child

By Patty Ayers

My first experience with death was when my mother told me that she had taken our family dog, Duke, to the infamous “farm” just a few miles away. She said that he would be very happy living there because he would be playing with other dogs. Of course I didn’t find out until years later that the “farm” was really the SPCA where he was euthanized.  I’ll bet that many of you have had similar experiences. Why do parents have such a difficult time explaining death to their children? Of course my example was that of a family pet, what about the death of a very close loved one?

One reason parents may be apprehensive about explaining death to children is that they are dealing with their own grief and may feel that it’s too painful to discuss this loss with another person, let alone their own child or children.  Another reason may be that they think that speaking about death will hurt their child so they avoid telling them what really happened. Also, we may be afraid that children will ask questions that we do not know how to answer.

Whatever the reason might be, it is possible to speak to your children about death in a truthful, calm and comfortable manner, before you are in a highly charged emotional state. Your child might have questions about death and be afraid to ask you, in order to avoid upsetting you further.  If you explain death to your child, you can be assured that they are hearing the truth and not learning incorrect or possibly harmful explanations about it from someone else.

The first thing to remember when talking to your child about death is to be sensitive to their age; kids think differently depending on their age.  Around the age of five, kids see the world as concrete and their thinking is literal.  It’s okay to explain that a person died because they were very sick.  But assure them that not everyone who gets sick will die; you should explain the difference between a major illness and a minor one.  Other examples of how children this age may make assumptions based on thinking literally are as follows:

  • If you tell them that mom went away, they may be afraid when people go away;
  • If you say that grandpa is sleeping, they may be afraid to go to sleep;
  • If you send two conflicting messages it will confuse them. For instance, saying  “Daddy is no longer in pain and we are happy for that,” while the child sees everyone is crying will not make sense to a five year old.

Older children between 6 and 11 years old may have a better knowledge of death and understand that when something or someone dies, they will not be coming back.  At this age they may think that something they have done or thought has caused death, so it’s important to encourage questions and to be honest with them.  Let them ask questions when they are ready, don’t pressure them, and try not to offer too much information it may confuse them.

Last, teenagers may struggle with their emotions and have questions about the afterlife or religion.  It’s okay to tell your child or teenager that you don’t know the answer but you would be happy to find the answer with them.  The most important thing is to make sure your child knows that you are willing to listen, and to tell them what you can.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was really struck by your last paragraph where you talk about not knowing the answer “but you would be happy to find the answer with them”. That is incredibly loving, honest and conscious. It takes a lot of courage and humility to say that to our children rather than pretending we know things we actually don’t.

    May 11, 2012
  2. Patty Ayers #

    Thank you for your response. I think we struggle sometimes as parents to say and do the right things when it comes to our children. When someone close dies our children will pickup on our emotions and will probably have many questions. Maybe this is a good time for our children to learn that we don’t always have all of the answers.

    May 12, 2012

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  1. Talking with children about death | Caring with Confidence

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