Explaining death to a child

With the guidance of a trusted adult, a child can build a solid foundation for a healthy understanding of death and how to make peace with the concept of death. (Photo: Freepik)
Death is a difficult concept to come to terms with for anyone. The experience of losing a loved one is life changing. As we grow older, we are put through a lifetime’s worth of grief, turbulence, and disappointment. However, for children, those moments are particularly confusing, overwhelming, and even terrifying.اضافة اعلان

Understanding that death is inevitable is not something that computes well inside a child’s brain, and many adults dread the moment of having to explain death to a child. However, with the guidance of a parent, grandparent, guardian, or any other significant adult, a child can build a solid foundation for a healthy understanding of death and how to make peace with it.

Why is it difficult to explain death to a child?

To begin with, many adults find it difficult to have to explain death to a child due to their need to cope with their own grief first. Many fear that bringing the topic up to a child will add to their own sadness and might show them to be much more emotionally vulnerable that they would like to appear in front of a child. They also worry about transferring their fears and anxieties onto the child, and so they decide to act tough, unaware that being emotionally vulnerable in front of a child is the healthier road to take.

In many cultures, death is deemed a taboo topic, and mentioning it is heavily avoided unless it is required. Even when mentioned, people tend to use comfortable euphemisms such as “passed away” or “crossed over”, avoiding using the word “death”.

Parents or guardians take the responsibility of being the source of security and knowledge to children seriously, and so not being able to adequately comfort them makes them feel like they are failing at their role in their child’s life. Especially since children need constant reassurance on even the simplest matters, talking about something as complex as death may warrant a lot of questions that might not have straightforward and reassuring answers.

What factors affect children’s view of death?

Each child may differ in their concept of death, and there are many factors that contribute to that, including age, emotional development, past experiences with death, whether the death was expected or sudden, and, most importantly, the surrounding elements that influence such thoughts and ideas. The way that any type of media a child consumes from movies, series, cartoons, books, and video games portrays death will have a significant impact on how a child will view it, especially if it was the first introduction that a child had to that concept.

In addition, there are many aspects to death that are not well explained to children, such as funerals, heavily rooted in culture and tradition, which may be a source of fear or confusion to a child.

Some adults expect a child to simply know, accept, and respect everything he will witness at a funeral without question. And while it is important for children to understand these practices and traditions, they can only truly do so with a proper explanation given to them. 
Understanding that death is inevitable is not something that computes well inside a child’s brain, and many adults dread the moment of having to explain death to a child.
Significant deaths, such as of a pet, can and will affect how a child reacts to the death of a loved one in their life. This is why it is necessary to not take the death of a pet lightly or disregard it in front of a child, which is something that tends to be done, specifically in our culture where it is regarded as an inconsequential occurrence that can be passed over without helping the child navigate the confusing and conflicting emotions surrounding it.

How do children view death?

The maturity in processing and understanding any information, especially with regards to death, differs from child to child. Here are some common ideas of death, according to different developmental ages:

Babies have no concept of death; toddlers still do not understand the concept, but are able to notice a change in those around them who might express sadness, fear, or anger, which can lead to them feeling afraid or anxious.

While pre-schoolers might begin to understand that adults fear death and that it means someone they know will not be around, they view it as a temporary or reversible thing, as depicted in many cartoons. They may also experience feelings of guilt and shame, fearing that their thoughts or actions may have caused the death of someone they love.

School-age children’s understanding of death starts to become more realistic; they begin to understand that death is permanent, and that everyone dies at some point. They begin to show curiosity in the physical process of death and to wonder whether anything happens to a person after they die. However, too much curiosity and not enough answers can lead to the fear of the unknown, causing them to experience a sense of loss of control, fearing their own death or that of a loved one, and getting overly attached to those around them.

How do you explain death to a child?

The first step in explaining death to a child is to start the conversation before it touches their life. You can start by discussing the death of a plant, then the death of a pet, and later on human death. When talking to them about it, be sure to mention that the plant will not grow back again, and that the pet will not be coming back, because the permanence of death is the concept that children have the hardest time understanding and accepting.

When death hits a family and it is time to break the news to the child, tell the truth right away. This gives an explanation for the pain and tears they have suddenly been surrounded with. When breaking the news, it is of utmost importance to use the words dead or died. Do not lie to a child by using sentences such as the dead person “went to sleep” or “went on a really long trip”. Look them in the eye and say that the person “died and will not be coming back”.

Allow the child a moment to absorb that statement and prepare to accept any reaction. Then begin to slowly and gradually prepare them for everything that is going to happen next. Inform them about any permanent or temporary change in living arrangements, such as “I am going to have to stay with grandpa for a few days and then I will be back home while you and dad will stay there”. Explain to them that funerals are our way of saying goodbye to a person. If a child expresses interest in going and if that is possible, let him attend and prepare him for all events that are going to take place.

How do children react to death?

Your conversations with a child surrounding the topic of death will depend on the type of questions they have. Be comfortable saying “I do not know”. Children might ask some unanswerable questions and it is okay to let them know that you do not have all the answers, but let them know that you are sad, and if you want to cry, do it in front of them. Cry together and cry often — it is a perfectly healthy way of emotional expression and release.

Reactions will vary from child to child. Some children will cry, some will feel angry and confused, and some might not react at all. Know that every reaction is normal and expected, so do not try to force a reaction and allow them to process the initial trauma before continuing the conversation with them. More importantly, do not chastise them or say damaging statements such as “I need you to be a big girl/boy now” or “you are going to have to toughen up”.

In the following weeks you will notice that they have taken a special interest in the topic of death and expect to hear questions such as “will I die?’, “will you die?” and “where do we go after we die?” Answer them simply and honestly, because learning about death and its realities is a formative experience for children. Although difficult to do, doing it gradually and properly will have a tremendous influence on them, allow them to openly express their feelings and emotions, and develop a healthy concept of the only thing that is promised in life.

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