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A Sad Goodbye: How to Explain Death to Children

When I tell our 7-year-old daughter Ella that her great-grandmother has died, her mouth drops its smile and settles into a straight line. We are sitting on the floor cross-legged, our knees touching.

“How did she die?” she asks.

“While she was sleeping,” I say.

“But how?” she asks again and I explain that when we get older, sometimes our bodies stop working, our hearts just stop beating.

“Oh, so she was really, really old then?” she asks.

“Yes, honey. Grandma Judy was 94,” I say. “We’ll miss her. She was a wonderful person, full of grace.”

I can tell Ella’s not sure what it means to be full of grace. She searches my face for some sort of clue, but all I can come up with are tears that I quickly wipe away.

“It’s sad isn’t it?” she says, then sighs and lays her head in my lap. After a few minutes she stands up, wraps her arms around my neck and gives me a hug.

“I’m going to play now, okay?” she says, pulling away from me and heading down the hall. She doesn’t seem too sad, and I wonder if she really understands that Judy is gone.

Explaining Death

Dr. Leighko Yap, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Oakland-based Kids Connect, leads group therapy for grieving children. She says Ella’s reaction to the death of her great-grandmother is typical for a child her age.

“It’s not that she doesn’t understand that death is a permanent thing,” says Yap. “But she doesn’t know how to react to it in the same way we as adults do.”

At around seven or eight years old, children start to understand the irreversibility of death, says Yap. Until then, they still engage in “magical thinking,” and it’s hard for them to differentiate between reality and fantasy. “For example, a child might think that the dead person is just sleeping, which means they might come back one day,” she says.

Age-Appropriate Responses

How do you explain death to a child? A good place to begin is with what you yourself believe about death and what comes after, says Dr. Dina Hankin, who provides therapy to children with cancer and their families at Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland.

“It’s best to be concrete,” she says. “You can explain that while the person’s body won’t be with us anymore, their soul and memory will be.”

It’s also okay to tell a child “I don’t know” when they ask some of the tougher questions, like what is it like right before or after a person dies. “Just like anything, if you can be comfortable with it, your child probably will be as well.”

Parents can try using the passing of pets or animals as examples of the permanence of death, she adds.

Understanding Your Child’s Emotions

Just because a child may not fully comprehend the permanence of death doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t experience a loss, says Dr. Kristen Carey, clinical psychologist and the other founder of Kids Connect.

Children might express their emotions in a variety of different ways. “In addition to sadness, a child might have trouble sleeping or eating, their grades might slip or they might fight more with peers,” she says. They might also exhibit anxiety, especially around the possibility of their own death or the death of another person close to them, she adds.

It’s also possible that children will avoid their feelings around the death, as they “might not have the ability to think about the experience and really begin to accept it,” says Carey. In this case, it’s important for parents to find out what their kids are feeling. They can do this by being honest about the way they themselves feel about the loss. While the impulse is to protect our children from feeling something we know is difficult to bear, it’s important to show them that if they let themselves experience big feelings, they can ultimately cope with them.

“Feelings of loss and grief are like any other new experience for a child: they just don’t know what to do,” says Carey. “They need parents to help them learn.”

Yap says that it’s important to reassure kids that while losing someone you love is very sad, everyone will be okay. It also helps to have children talk about the deceased with someone besides their parents — an aunt, uncle or other adult close to the person who died. This way they can speak freely without worrying they might upset their parents, who are already grieving.

Worrying About Death

If a child asks a parent or adult if they’re going to die, it’s best to be truthful but reassuring. “You can say something like, ‘No, I don’t expect to die anytime soon. I expect to be around for a long, long time’,” says Carey. You can help the child gather keepsakes that remind them of the person who has died.

Children also might worry that they, too, could die at any time. “There will be a period of time during the grieving process when it’s natural for them to think about it,” says Hankin. Adults should tell children that while it’s true we all die, now is not their time.

“You can say something like ‘Grandpa died because he was old’ or ‘Your sister passed away because she was ill’,” says Hankin. “Let them know that mommy and daddy are there for them and are going to do their best to keep them safe, happy and healthy.”

When Someone is Terminally Ill

Dr. Hankin often helps kids come to terms with the impending death of a terminally ill sibling. She stresses that “it’s important to help children create positive, lasting memories of the person who is dying.” Children may want to draw pictures for the person who is ill or just spend time with them. “Don’t put pressure on them to do it in any particular way, though.” she advises. “Just give them the opportunity to do so.”

Children might also need an outlet for the anger they feel at losing someone they love. “Parents can help children express themselves in healthy ways,” says Hankin. They can write a letter to the person who is dying, scream or punch into a pillow rather than at friends or family or join a support group with other children going through the same experience. “It’s important to help kids find some peace and solace while they question the fairness of the world,” she says. Spending time with clergy can also help, she adds.

Should You Take Your Child to the Funeral?

When someone dies, parents should ask themselves whether or not to include their children at the funeral. In addition to the practical factors to think about, such as distance and time away from home, one should consider the child’s relationship to the deceased and if the funeral will have a lot of unknown, grieving relatives, what effects that might have.

Drs. Yap and Carey suggest parents also consider the length of the service, whether or not there will be an adult available to attend to the needs of the children if the parents are too overwhelmed and whether or not there will be an open casket at the service. Seeing a person in an open casket can be very difficult and sometimes confusing for a child, who might think the deceased is just sleeping, says Dr. Yap. “There should be an adult available who can take the child for a break and be there to answer questions,” she says. “Kids have a harder time processing emotional pain than adults and are easily overwhelmed.”

If the child doesn’t go to the funeral, then it’s important for them to know that the funeral is happening. “It’s good to talk about what’s going on that day and explain that people are saying goodbye to the deceased person,” says Dr. Carey. “That will help with understanding death and its permanence.”

Other Ways to Remember

There are many ways to help a child face the death of a loved one other than attending a funeral. Visiting the cemetery, doing something special on the anniversary of the death and telling stories about the person who died are all good ways to help children deal with the loss, says Carey.

“You can help the child gather keepsakes that remind them of the person who has died. It’s also good to let the child know when they’ve done something that would have pleased that person, like saying ‘Grandma would have been so proud that you did well on your spelling test,’” says Carey. “This a great way to maintain an internal connection with the person who’s gone.”

In the end, my husband and I decided not to take Ella to Grandma Judy’s funeral. Instead, we looked at some of Judy’s beautiful paintings hanging in our house and told the story of how she met her husband, Melburn. We pulled out the photos and found the one where Ella, at two years old, is sitting on Judy’s lap. Laughing under a summer sun, they are both full of grace.

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