Talking to Young Children About Death

Let me start by saying, I’ve had this post ready to publish for months.  I’ve held on to it waiting for the “right” time to make it public.  The bottom line, is that this is a sad, difficult, personal topic, and there is no “right”time.

The way one explains death to a child is a very personal decision. Some people talk about G-d. They might say that G-d needed grandpa and so he went to be with G-d. Others might tell a child the straight truth.  In most situations, it is my belief that you should tell children the truth in language that feels comfortable for you.  “Grandma died.” Or, “Grandma passed away.” 

When a child asks why people die (not all children will ask), turn the question back on him or her.  Ask,”What do you think?”  Or “Do you have an idea why people die?”  The response will give you a good idea of what your child is thinking and how much they are ready to hear.  At a young age, unless the child has an idea that is scary for her or is something you really don’t want her to believe, you can simply support her thoughts.  If the child says she doesn’t know, try saying “let’s think about it” and be silent for a while until she comes up with something to say. 

When it comes to talking about death and other difficult subjects, getting information from a child first is a good way to guage how much they can handle. Young children generally don’t need too much information about “why” people die but rather that they loved us, are all around us, and in our hearts. You can tell your child that sometimes you miss grandma and it makes you feel sad, and sometimes you are happy thinking about all of the wonderful times you had together. You can help your child  write down some things he or she remembers about grandma or some things she’d like to tell her.

There are many books available to help with this difficult topic, but I suggest starting by talking to your child directly. Generally, children already have an idea about death that is age appropriate.  If your child is content to come up with their own ideas, and be comforted by you telling them how much the person who died loved them, you might not need to employ another technique.  For some children and parents, books can help to more easily begin a difficult conversation. 

When grieving, it is okay to show children that you are upset.  Children need to see that grown-up can have a wide range of emotions.  Try your best to seem (even if you are faking it) comfortable talking with them about death.   As your child gets older they may want to revisit and revise their ideas.   This is not an easy subject, but with love and support, both you and your child will get through it.

Dana’s Kids.  Empowered Parents, Happy Families.