Describing Death to A Child


Just the word, said out loud or written that way, with just the period behind it, seems somehow taboo and uncomfortably final.It makes us uneasy.Moreover, we know how hard death is to explain to ourselves.How do you discuss death with a child? You may want to skirt the topic altogether.But death, too often, is feared and misunderstood in the mind of a child.Your child needs you to explain it, or he or she risks coming away with fear and anxiety born from misinformation or their own imaginations.So, how do you describe the process and finality of death to a little one?

You may need some help with that.

Consider some of these key points for helping a child understand death and dying:

Don’t Dismiss Your Child’s Perceptions of Death. 

Be sure to listen to what your child says or asks. He is thinking about it, especially if the loss is personal. Talk to him so that a healthy, realistic perspective is retained from the experience.

Take into account your child’s age and development. Ideas of finality develop over time. Answering questions in a manner that is age-appropriate is usually best.

Kids grieve too. Developed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the familiar grief model, which includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, can be witnessed in children. Simply let it play out naturally, for however long, and support your child as she expresses her thoughts, confusion, and struggles.

Consider the Circumstances of Your Child’s Exposure to Death.

Expected Death. Preparation is important. Resist the urge to send him away with no time to adjust to the loss. Talk to him about what he witnessed and discuss openly any feelings that are negative or ambivalent, as well as sad. Use clear language, rather than puzzling phrasing like “resting in peace.” Discuss how a dying person’s body eventually slows down and stops working completely. You might also take the opportunity to use unemotional illustrations like the cycle of life and death in nature. Make every effort to hear your child’s need for reassurance, accept varying involvement throughout the death process, and listen to conclusions he reaches about death.
Sudden Death. In this circumstance, reassure your child of her safety and avoid confusion. Try not to use misleading phrases like “went away” or “took a long trip.” The loss, coupled with those types of ideas, may cause fear or give your child the sense that the loss is temporary. Validate your child’s emotions and maintain perspective by assuring your child that sudden deaths are not everyday events. Share your own feelings calmly and supportively, to avoid amplifying any anxiety. Be prepared to seek the assistance of a counselor if depression or withdrawal becomes an issue.

Suicidal death. This explanation may require you to answer your child’s “why?” with an honest “I don’t know.” Shannon Karl, a grief expert and member of the American Counseling Association, suggests that parents clearly relate that the deceased person “died from suicide” rather committed suicide. If your child expresses guilt, reassure him that he is not to blame. Talk about how a person can have sickness in his or her mind that leads to that type of choice, with little specific detail about the manner of death.

Effective, ongoing communication is key for developing your child’s healthy coping skills and perceptions regarding death. Sometimes adult grief, anxiety, or relationships may hinder a child’s grasp of the topic. If you need help discussing death or helping your child manage grief, consider the assistance of an experienced grief counselor who can provide encouraging guidance and support