Monthly Archives: October 2013

Explaining death to children

I recently had one of the hardest experiences of my life, when I sat my children down and told them that Grandpa, who we had just made a 500-mile round trip to visit in hospital, was going to die.

It was heart-rending to hear eight-year-old Meribel sob that she wished she had the philosopher’s stone to give him.

We often assume children are too young to handle death, but children pick up on fear of adults and a change in the air. So not levelling with them is a false kind of protection, which can lead to them creating their own demons.

When I was a massage therapist one lady told me that her dad had died in a car crash when she was small. She has never got over the fact that her mother didn’t tell her for weeks, leaving her to wonder where her dad was.

If children are left alone with their fears and misunderstandings, they grow. They need answers before the myths take over.

How to go about it:

1. It’s never too early to talk about death. The death of a pet is a good introduction. Discussing the natural world is also a good lead in to the conversation. It is natural for flowers to wither and die, and for the leaves to fall in the autumn, but everything is reborn in spring.

2. Use books. Waterbugs and Dragonflies, by Doris Stickney, talks about death in a lovely way which children can understand.

3. Avoid euphemisms. “Passed away”, “lost” and “went to sleep” make no sense to children. They might keep expecting them to come back, or think that falling asleep is dangerous.

4. Allow them to show their emotion. You can’t stop them from feeling sad, and you need to be supportive and attentive to them when they are expressing their emotion. Equally, it’s fine to let them see your grief.

5. Be open to questions. Answer their questions as honestly as you can. It’s OK to say that you don’t know. Try not to squirm, or be awkward, as this makes them feel awkward. Tell them they can ask you anything and listen carefully. Be prepared for questions to come at inopportune times. They are likely to catch you on the hop.

6. Let them know the facts. A definition of death, from is: “Something or somebody that’s dead doesn’t move, or eat, or breathe, or do anything. They cannot feel pain and will never wake up.” Tell them that everyone dies one day, but most people don’t die until they are older, so they mustn’t worry about other loved ones dying.

7. There aren’t many positive aspects of death, except that it’s part of life. If we didn’t die then there wouldn’t be room for babies to come into the world. There is certain sense of accomplishment about a life which has been well lived and people in the family dying in the natural order. It reminds us of how important it is to live.

8. Memory boxes are a good way of honouring a dead person, keeping memories safe and a place to revisit when they think about their loved one.