One of the most stressful challenges parents can face is explaining death to their child. Most parents at some point in their young child’s life will have to deal with the challenge to some degree, and no matter how many other people have gone through it before, it always feels like uncharted waters for first-time parents. Questions on how to talk to your child about death will add to what is probably already a sad and stressful situation. And unfortunately how a parent chooses to deal with explaining death to their child depends on a million different factors.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when navigating the waters of loss and grief with your young child. These tips are meant to help with the death of a friend or distant relative. (The loss of a parent or sibling is an entirely different animal and often seeking the advice of a counselor or at the very least a book about losing an immediate family member is probably better than a short blog post.)
Ø Less is More – Just because someone in your life has passed away doesn’t mean you have to have a deep explanation about life and death with your child if she is not ready for it. Many people will try to explain the meaning of life and death to a three year old when it’s not always necessary. Don’t bog your child down with more details than she actually needs to know. “My Uncle Bob passed away because that’s what happens when people get very old.” Often, pointing out movies like The Lion King to your child can help you teach the very simple lesson that death is simply part of the circle of life. When your child is a toddler or preschooler, or even early school age, in most cases there is no need for more details than that.
Ø The Age and Maturity of Your Child – This is the first thing that should be considered when deciding how to tell your child about someone’s passing. Is your child old enough to understand or care? The older your child gets, the more obligated you are to them to explain when someone has died. Especially if she is old enough to see your grief coming through. If she is sensitive, allow her to react to your grief as well as her own. And, as mentioned above, you do not need to hammer home the details of the passing, just that the person is gone. And most importantly, let your child guide you. If she wants to know more, let her know more. If she do not seem overly phased by the news, then let it be.
Ø Your Child’s Relationship – This is of course a huge part of determining how you explain to your child when someone has died. If it’s someone she’s only met a few times and may not remember too well, than she isn’t going to need as much explanation as someone who she sees on a regular basis. And keep in mind that just because it's someone she’s never met doesn’t mean you do not need to tell her. If your child is old enough to really understand that you are visibly upset, you need to tell her why. Even if it’s as simple as “Mommy is sad because an old friend of hers passed away, and she’s going to miss her.”
Ø What Comes Next – If you plan on attending the funeral and bringing the kids, especially if you will be traveling out of town, you need to prepare the kids for what to expect. But again, keep it simple. “People go to funerals so that they can say goodbye. They’ll be sad, but it’s OK to be sad.” And be prepared. Bring snacks, quiet toys, and sit in the back so if you need to whisk your little one out because she’s crying or upset, you can.
Ø Answering Why – Once your child is old enough to start asking what exactly is death and what happens after you die, answer them. But don’t give your kids more than their little minds are able to process. And before you answer be sure you're clear on what you believe. If you and your family are already religious, this can give you an easy explanation. “When people die, they go to heaven.” Or “When people die, their souls come back somewhere else.” If you’re not religious, you can still keep it simple, by giving them a storybook answer. “When people die they’re buried in the ground (or ashes are scattered) on the earth and they become part of the earth. The trees, the flowers, the wind, the grass, etc. So they are always with us.”
Ø Share the Experience – If your child is inclined to help you look through pictures or watch home videos, let her. Death is a natural part of life, and while you don’t need to weigh your child down with details of death, there is no need to hide from the reality of it either.