When Teaching Children About Death

I recently took my children to their great-grandmother’s funeral. My husband and I thought we had prepared them for the ceremony, but upon seeing the body in the casket my 7-year old became confused. “I thought she went to heaven,” she said. While we had taught her what we believe happens to a person’s soul after death. We had neglected the more physical elements.

A Parenting and Consumer Education pamphlet on death said when teaching children about death, its important to explain clearly what death is and how it is caused. Start teaching children about death early, before it hits close to home.

Nature provides many opportunities to teach children about death free from grief. Discuss death using fall leaves, a bug, or a fish you’ve caught. Show them that the leaves are decaying or that the bug no longer moves. Tell them the bug dies because it doesn’t get food, gets too cold, or its body is hurt and so stops working.

Children are often curious about death, but adults are hesitant to discuss it with them. Through discussion we learn what children already understand about death, and can clear up any misconceptions.

When discussing death with children use familiar language and avoid euphemisms like grandma’s “passed away”, “went to a better place”, or “gone to sleep.” Though it is natural for a parent to want to soften the blow, children might be confused and worry the next time they go to sleep, or someone goes on vacation, that they are never coming back.

When a death occurs, let the child ask questions and explain the answers as clearly as possible. If you don’t know the answer just tell her you don’t know. After a death has occurred reassure your child with truthful reasons why the same thing is now unlikely to happen to you or your child.

Sometimes a child’s first close experience with death happens when a family pet has died. Experts from Children Today caution parents to avoid the impulse to immediately buy another animal. This minimizes the children’s loss and it is important for children to learn to deal with this type of loss or they will be unprepared for bigger losses later in life.

Sometimes a tangible reminder of a loved one who has died can be very comforting. My daughter has a tea set great-grandma gave her she can touch and be reminded of how much great-grandma loved her. Children may like to keep a picture close by. I still have a picture on my dresser of my grandfather and me taken when I was eight years old.

Some children don’t want to talk about a loved one’s death initially. Parents should ask them periodically how they feel about the death. It’s important to be available and let your child know it is okay to have sad feelings and okay to talk about them.

There are many picture books that deal with death. A quiet moment reading together may help the child be able to verbalize their thoughts and feelings about death.

Long-term denial of death or avoidance of grief is unhealthy and should be discussed with a health care professional.