It may seem unusual to talk of children and death in the same sentence since in our struggle to protect them from the subject of death we render it taboo. However, in so doing, we are sending the message that we cannot handle the topic of death and therefore any questions they may have about it are left unasked or unanswered.
Although we hope and pray that we never have to talk about dying to our children, death should not be seen in a vacuum but rather, within the context of life. And just as we teach our children about different aspects of life such as relationships, love, and education so we can help them by talking about death as well.
By the age of five, most children will probably had some experience of death. Perhaps the death of a pet, or heard talk of the death of a relative. Children also come across death in fairytales such a Cinderella and Snow White which both highlight the death of a beloved parent. Similarly, children are exposed to issues surrounding death in movies, such as The Lion King, which has very clear references to the experience of dying, death, and the circle of life.
– So how do we explain death to children ?
When faced with the responsibility of explaining death to a child, the most important thing to remember is the child’s sense of security. For example, we need to break the news that a loved one is dying, or has died, it is advisable to do so in the safety of home rather than in a hospital setting. It also helps if the child talks to a person with whom they have a loving and stable relationship. Always include facts and be honest – when you don’t know an answer to a child’s question, say so rather than make things up.
Keep it simple and do not use statement which confuse the children even further such as “Grandma has gone to sleep forever” or “Grandma is going to a better place”. Instead use direct statement such as “Grandma is dead and so we will not see her anymore”. A child’s first question very often is, “So, where is grandma now?” Answer honestly and to be true to your beliefs whether it is “In Heaven”, or “I don’t know for sure”.
Children express grief differently from adults, so do not expect them to look sad or to cry. Their grief may instead, show itself in unusual or difficult behaviour – this is often a result of their inability to deal with, or talk about their feelings. Just let them know that, while disruptive behaviour is not acceptable, it is ok to feel sad, confused and angry.