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Tips for Explaining the Concept of Death to Children
Death is inevitable, but for many parents and guardians the idea of discussing this difficult and complex subject with young children can seem daunting. In many cases it is something that they attempt to avoid altogether until they believe the child is “old enough” to understand the concept of death.
However, there’s no “right” time to start teaching children about death, and what it means to die. Especially in cases where a pet, family member, or family friend passes away, it’s important for the adults in the child’s life to do the best that they can to help the child understand what it means to pass away.
By tackling this subject early on, children are able to better learn how to cope with feelings of grief, loss, confusion, and loneliness that inevitably affect us after we lose someone we care about.
Below are a few tips to keep in mind when explaining death to the children in your life:
You don’t have to know everything
It’s okay to say “I don’t know” when your child asks a difficult question. Many people are unsure of what, if anything, happens after we die, and being honest with children helps reassure them that they don’t need to have the answers, either, and that confusion is normal.
Encourage children to discuss how they’re feeling
Ask your children how they’re feeling, and if they have any questions about what it means to die. Let them know that it’s okay and totally normal to feel scared, angry, sad, or confused, and let them know how you’re feeling, too. By sharing your feelings you can connect with your child, and aid them in their grieving process
Don’t get frustrated with them
Children may ask several questions again and again, such as asking after the deceased person, which can lead to frustration and anger, especially if they keep asking about a sensitive subject.
If this happens, don’t get angry; calmly explain to the child that the person in question has died, and can’t come back.
Discuss death before it becomes personal
Children encounter death every day; from plants, to rodents, to birds and bugs, they see life come and go around them. By taking advantage of opportunities like these, you can get your child thinking about death before emotions get too involved, as they tend to when a loved one dies.
Use concrete terms
Trying to use euphemisms detracts from the seriousness of the situation, and can be confusing to children. For example, saying “Grandpa went to sleep” implies that Grandpa may someday wake up, and keeps the child from understanding the permanence of death.
Additionally, these euphemisms can lead to children holding onto a lost hope that their loved one will return, which can extend and aggravate the grieving process.
Talking to children about death isn’t an easy task, but by keeping these core principles in mind you will be ready to have the difficult discussion with your child when the time comes.