Maturity Plays Role In Talking to a Child about Death

Filed under: Preschoolers, Big Kids, Tweens

father and son picture

Death can be hard to discuss with a child. Credit: Getty Images

No matter your religious beliefs, death is a subject that, at some point, a parent will need to discuss with a child.

Maturity plays a part in a child's understanding of death, and a few suggestions may make it easier to let a child know about the death of a friend, family member or even a family pet.

According to Earl A. Grollman in his book "Explaining Death to Children," because young children see their parents leave and return, they often may equate death with this temporary departure. Slightly older children, between the ages of 5 and 9, start understanding death better, but tend to deny it can happen to them or people they know. Whereas, after the age of 9, children have a much greater understanding of death and its permanence.

If someone close to the family dies, be prepared to share your grief with your children. A child should be made aware that death can make people sad. Death, however, is a subject that should be handled with truth. An untruth -- that a dead person is just in a deep sleep, for instance -- creates difficulties when a child tries to equate an everyday event, in this case, sleep, with the tragedy that has occurred.

If possible, try to bring a child to a graveyard to facilitate a discussion of life and death, or try to bring this sometimes taboo subject into regular conversation. Seeing a grave helps to explain the question children often ask: Where does someone go when they die?

Although one should openly discuss death, the cause may not be appropriate. While a young child may be brought to understand that a person is not returning, if that person has committed suicide or faced a violent death, the child need not be told all the details.

Some experts believe that children as young as 7 should be given the opportunity to attend funerals to become a part of the family's rituals of healing and mourning. If the child does not want to attend the funeral, perhaps visiting the funeral home with a caring, compassionate adult who is able to answer questions might provide a compromise. Or, as the child moves through the mourning process, arrange a visit to the deceased's favorite spot or the grave.

Discussing death with a child is important, as is ensuring that the child has an opportunity to ask questions. Children should be free to express emotions and crying, if necessary.

There are three phases of a child's grief: Protesting a person's death; despair or pain; and hope. Keep in mind that life and death are two certainties, which can be used to explain each other. However, if you -- or your child -- are having difficulties surrounding someone's death, seek out counseling services or pastoral care. Utilize services that will help you and your child comprehend death, which is one of the most difficult elements of life.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.