All living things eventually die; whether it be the plant on your windowsill, the family’s pet dog, or a loved one. Death is a foreign concept to children, and just as it’s difficult for us to deal with as adults, children can have a tough time coming to terms with grief and loss.
Why is it important to talk about death with children? As difficult of a topic as it is, children need to be informed of the truth. They need to hear from trusted adults. They need to be comforted. Discussing the death, particularly that of pets and loved ones, allows children to process their feelings and thoughts, grieve and come to terms with the loss. Not discussing death can have long-term, deleterious effects.
Caregivers should be aware of their child’s understanding of death and dying. This understanding occurs along a continuum of development. For instance, preschool aged children may think death is reversible because, developmentally, they do not grasp the concept of finality. On the other end of the spectrum, teenagers understand death similarly to adults. Understanding your child’s perception of the cause and effects of death can help you in approaching them on the topic.
It may be helpful to discuss grief and loss with children before they experience the death of a pet or loved one. By discussing how flowers, plants and insects die, children can begin to have a growing understanding of the concept with little emotional impact. When a loved one does die, the child may be better prepared to grieve.
“When someone dies, that means their body is no longer working. The heart stops beating, they no longer need to eat or sleep, and they no longer feel any pain. They don’t need their body any longer. That means we will never see them again as we could before.” (From Children and Death, by Danai Papadatou and Costas Papadatos.)
In telling a child that a death has occurred:
- Be honest
- Encourage questions
- Share your family’s spiritual beliefs surrounding death
- Only disclose known facts about the death, ensuring that you give the child age-appropriate information
- Avoid terms like “She’s asleep” and “All will be alright.” Be concrete and do not make promises you cannot keep. Children do not understand vague terms and euphemisms
- Spend time with the child and allow them to ask questions, without pushing them.
In addition, to clear up misunderstandings the child may have, ensure they are told that the person or doctors couldn’t prevent the death, the person didn’t die because they were angry with the child, the person will not come back, there’s nothing wrong with playing and having fun at this time of loss and that they are loved. Also talk about the feelings they may experience as they work through their grief (anger, sadness, guilt, etc.).
Children, just like adults, should engage in final rituals (funerals, memorials, etc.) as a way of experiencing the reality of the loss and beginning the healing process. The child will witness others’ experience of the loss and may understand that they aren’t alone in their feelings. If a child adamantly refuses to engage in the ritual, do not force them. There may be other ways they can acknowledge the death, such as creating a scrapbook of pictures of themself with the deceased, writing a poem, or planting a tree in memory. Involve the child in thinking of ways they can express their feelings.
Children may mourn in various ways over time. They may be sad, anxious, express feelings of guilt, have physical complaints, act out at home or in school and have academic difficulties. If these persist despite caregivers’ exploration of grief with the child, a professional should be consulted.