It is the one thing which is unavoidable in life and as much as we would like to protect our wonderful children, it’s so important that we prepare them properly for life in general as well as death.
I have been doing lots of research since my little one was a baby, on how to explain death to children. I was quite frustrated when the question was posted, a few times, on the online communities I’m part of but people were just being directed to books to buy off Amazon. I think sometimes people just want a first-hand account instead of having to read through a whole book.
Death is a subject a lot of parents try to avoid, by not being completely honest with their kids. It’s easier if you’re religious, as the story of heaven is a little easier to explain. Not wanting to instil any religious fundamentals at this early age, I decided to go a more direct approach.
How To Explain Death To Your Child
- Be as honest as possible – Up to a certain point honesty is important. At age 3, it’s probably too young for them to learn about murder or suicide, so if this is the cause of death, it’s best to just say accident.
- Don’t hide your emotions – It’s important that we are strong for our kids, but strength comes in all shapes and sizes, and emotion is not a weakness. Cry with them, show them that sadness is a normal part of the grieving process.
- Privacy – Don’t have this conversation at school or a friends house, make sure you’re at home, to allow your child to feel as safe as possible to be able to express their feelings.
- Be straightforward – Children are much more intuitive than we think. The concept of death is all around them, it comes up on things they might be exposed to like cartoons and books. Flowers die. We often find dead slugs and bees. So don’t sugar coat it too much. Explain that when someone dies they aren’t sleeping or have gone away.
- Repetitive questions – Be prepared to repeat yourself. Answer every question, even if it’s the same question again and again.
- No normal response – There is no ‘normal response from children. Each child responds differently to grief and it’s ok. My parents never spoke to me about anything. When my grandmother died, they didn’t even tell me. My sister did and when she did, both of us were laughing uncontrollably. It was a couple of days before christmas and I was 7. Don’t fret about your child’s response, just be there for them however they may need you.
- Your own mortality – When they realize that everyone, including you, will die, assure them that it’ll only happen one day when you’re old. Reassure them that you are here for them and that they don’t need to be afraid of losing you.
- Remember them – Don’t pretend like they never existed. Remember the people that have passed on, so your child has a chance to express their feelings and memories about the person. It’ll also help them to understand that even though death is sad, it is part of life and you have to learn to live with it, instead of hiding from it.
- Memorial – Funerals may be too upsetting for a younger child. This is something that each parent needs to decide based on each child. But it is important for people to be able to say goodbye, so do not deny your child this. Have your own funeral or memorial service for this person, if attending the funeral is not possible. Which is why it’s a good idea to have a little burial for pets when they pass on.
- Be reassuring – Reassure your child that everything will be ok. Depending on their relationship to the deceased, this may be something they really need. The death of someone very close is a loss which is hard to process. For a child, if it is someone they see every day like a parent, they may need to adjust to someone else doing the things that their parents use to do, like making their breakfast, bathing them, taking them to school, etc. Reassure them that even though change and the unknown is scary, they will be ok.