Talking about death is important – it helps you plan ahead, understand what you want at the end of life, and even enjoy the time you have left more. Children too can benefit from open, honest conversations about death. For them, it’s about learning more about life and death, and understanding what it means when someone dies.
But explaining death to a child can be a daunting task. You’ll probably be worried about scaring or upsetting them. Being afraid to say the wrong thing often means people avoid having a conversation about death with their children, leaving them with hundreds of questions and no answers.
If the child has recently experienced the death of a loved one, the need for conversation is even greater. Bereavement is confusing at any age and children need to feel able to ask questions.
However, bear in mind that talking about death can be beneficial whether they have lost someone or not, and bringing up the subject now may make it easier for them when they do lose someone in the future.
Here are five tips for talking to children about death and dying:
1. Find out what they think about death first
This can be a really helpful way of starting a conversation. If a child asks you, “What does ‘dying’ mean?” you could respond by asking, “What do you think it means?”
This isn’t an avoidance tactic – you can find out what they already know or what they think they know. It’s a golden opportunity to let them express themselves and correct any misinformation they might have picked up. Do so gently, explaining in simple terms what happens when someone dies.
2. Use simple language and avoid euphemisms
“She’s passed away”, “He’s gone to a better place”, “He’s sleeping”, “I’m afraid we’ve lost your grandma.” All of these phrases, while trying to be comforting, are vague euphemisms. Children can be easily confused and may take these phrases at face value, thinking that their loved one is literally sleeping or lost.
Don’t be afraid to use the word “dead” or “death”. It may sound blunt, but children often want the facts. Explain that death means the heart stops working, breathing stops, and that person can’t think or feel. Use simple words that they will understand.
3. Let them know it’s okay to be sad
If you’re explaining death because someone has died, you might want to also talk about the feelings that this can cause. Let the child know that death can make people feel sad, angry or confused, and that people might act strangely during this time. Tell them that if they feel like crying that’s okay, but it’s also okay if they don’t.
Remember that children grieve very differently from adults. They might not cry or show sadness, but it’s still good to let them know that they can if they need to.
4. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know
Children can ask some really difficult questions, such as: “What happens after death?” “Does Heaven really exist?” and “Why do people have to die?” As much as you’d like to give them definite answers, the truth is that the human race has been striving to answer these questions for thousands of years and we still don’t know exactly.
Admitting that you don’t know isn’t a bad thing. Simply explain that everyone has different ideas and that there are some questions in life to which we don’t have definite answers.
5. Don’t just talk, listen
Giving information and answers is important, but equally important is listening to what the child has to say. When they’re giving their opinion or voicing concerns, make sure you listen closely and understand what they’re trying to say. If you don’t understand, ask them to clarify.
Ultimately, you want this to be a conversation, not just a presentation of facts. Listening to them will let them know that they can trust you to take them seriously. This is an important part of helping them open up about what they are feeling.
You can read more about the challenges of supporting a bereaved child, or contact a specialist bereavement organization for expert help.