Posted on February 23, 2022 by jhcadm
Explaining Death to a Child When a Loved One Passes
When a death occurs, it may be challenging to decide the best way to share that information with younger family members, especially if they were the child or close relative to the deceased individual. Although sharing such news can be daunting, children of preschool age and up to seven years old lack a true understanding of death and will likely handle it with less devastation than imagined.
But before raising the subject, a deeper understanding of how children view these concepts will clarify how to explain it in an appropriate, meaningful way.
How a Child Understands Death
While toddlers have little understanding of this concept, preschool age children begin to understand that it is something ‘bad’ and feared by adults. They notice it occurring the most with animals and in cartoons they watch, but the finality of it is too abstract. Because children tend to take information very literally at this stage, phrases like ‘lost’, ‘gone away’ or ‘put to sleep’ are ultimately unhelpful as they may expect the person to come back or wake up. Therefore, the term “death” is preferable, even if they cannot quite grasp it.
When a child is school age, 5-7 years old, death is becoming a clearer reality, often personified by skeletons, angels, and ghosts. These images help define death as a permanent and different state than being alive. During this time, sharing the truth about the death of someone will cause greater emotional response than in previous years, and the child may become concerned with their own mortality or that of those around them. Phrases like ‘gone away’ or ‘put to sleep’ will no longer achieve a gentler affect and cause confusion.
Helpful Ways to Explain Death to a Child
There is no need to go beyond simple sentences or emotions when it is time to talk about the passing of a loved one. A parent could say: “I have something sad to tell you. Grandma died today.” That would be enough to share the news, and after gaging the child’s reaction, sympathizing by putting your own feelings into words helps: “I know you’re very sad about this and I am too.” Lastly, if the passing will cause a change of routine for the child, prepare them by explaining what will happen next, such as: “Uncle John will pick you up from school like Grandma did.”
Remember that it is okay to show your own emotions and talk through the situation without the need for complexity or detail.
The Importance of Explaining Death to a Child
Although most children do not fully understand the concept of death before eight or ten years old, approaching the subject honestly will help their understanding grow and avoid misinterpretations. Since grief is a process that happens over time, a child will have stages of processing a loved one’s passing as their understanding of it grows. Therapy and creating ways for a child to remember the deceased individual are also ways to learn and process the finality of death if necessary.