Children's understanding of death

When families experience death, they often have lots of questions about how to handle the subject and what sort of conversations and activities are appropriate for children.

It's always a good idea to use the ‘D’ words - death, dead, dying and die. Metaphors or passive phrases like “went away”, “gone away”, “passed away” and “went to sleep” are really confusing for children. People go to the shops, go to work and go away on trips, but they usually come back. Similarly the phrase “going to sleep” can sometimes cause children to worry about bad things that can happen when they go to bed at night. Remember that children often won’t ask questions in situations where they’re uncertain (think of how many times they need to be asked if they need to go to the toilet!). Volunteering information along the way can be very helpful and prevent unnecessary worries from creeping in.

Telling children that everything is ok when you’re clearly upset can be confusing, and can have make children feel mistrustful. In a recent article ('Can Babies Tell if You are Lying?') I published on mouthsofmums.com I outlined some research that indicates even an 18 month year old can tell if you’re ‘lying’ about being upset and putting on a happy face. Being honest (without going into details) helps to build children’s trust and demonstrate that it’s alright to express negative emotions.

Anticipatory grief

Wherever possible, if you know that a family member, friend or pet is likely to die the help your child to gradually anticipate it. Anticipatory grief does not replace or lessen grief of the bereaved, but it helps to reduce the shock and confusion.

Explaining death

It’s the end pf physical activity. The dead person or pet no longer has physical needs that living things do. They don’t eat, sleep, or go to the toilet. They won’t feel cold in a casket or hot when they are cremated. They won’t feel lonely or have any worries. For young children without a family background of spirituality, you may need to clearly explain processes like ‘talking’ to the deceased at the grave site.

Irreversibility.  With people coming and going in life (going to work, family members going home after holidays) children expect people to return from absences. Explain that death is permanent. Children may see TV shows or movies where characters are revived or brought back to life and these ‘miracles’ of faith or technology can be confusing. Full understanding of the irreversibility of death often doesn’t set in until early adolescence. With younger children they tend to keep asking when they deceased is coming back. 

Universality. Explain that all living things eventually die. Children in upper primary and early adolescence can usually grasp this concept in its abstract form. Younger children have difficulty with this concept, particularly in regards to thinking about their own life.

Funerals

It’s perfectly fine for children to attend funerals, and can even help with their understanding.

Like any new situation, it’s important to prepare them- explain what people may do or say. In particular, they need to know that people may cry, they might get angry, and they might smile and laugh all in the space of an hour. They will see people they’ve never met, and they might see people who they haven’t seen in a long time. There will be times where they need to sit still and to be quiet, so prepare them with snacks and quiet activities.

Assign each child a support person who can look out for them since different children will have different needs and questions during the funeral and this can get very overwhelming for one parent to manage. 

Saying goodbye

Rituals and routines are very important to keeping children feeling healthy and happy.

Drawing pictures, writing letters and making keepsakes to be buried or put at the grave can be comforting for children because they feel useful

Encourage the idea that good memories are with you forever

It’s a personal choice, but even in the absence of organised faith or spirituality, the idea of ‘something’ beyond death can be very comforting for children.

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