How and When to Talk to Kids About Death
When Should I Tell My Child About Death?
The big issues in life are sometimes best handled on a need-to-know basis. However, if a child is asking about death, they are probably ready for some answers. Teaching a child about nature can lay a foundation for understanding death. The child learns gradually that death is a natural progression that all living creatures face. While we can talk about plants or animals, even people dying, it's not until a grandparent or pet dies that the concept becomes real. For most children, these will their first big experiences with death.
If you are grieving for someone the child isn't close to, you can also use this as an opportunity to talk about death. Let your child know you're sad and that it's okay to be sad when someone dies. (It's also helpful for a child to understand why you're down so he doesn't blame himself for your mood.) Be prepared for questions, especially about your own death. The types of questions will depend on how much the child knows about the death you're dealing with. Don't promise not to die, but let your child know you'll probably live a very long time.
How Should I Tell My Child About Death?
Discussions of death need to be age appropriate. Little kids can sometimes seem obsessed with death, but they don't really know what they're talking about. Up to about Kindergarten, most kids are extremely literal. They need solid answers. Be truthful, avoiding fuzzy explanations like that the person moved on or has been lost. These terms are not clear to a child and could scare him.
When a grandmother dies, you can attribute it to her body - it didn't work anymore. If a younger person dies in an accident, you can say his body got broken. The hardest thing for a young child to understand is that death is final, that the person is never coming back. It may take a while of reminding the child before he stops asking to see the person who has died.
You can share your concept of an afterlife with the child if he's ready, but he may be just as satisfied to know that grandpa is in the cemetery.
Elementary school aged children can handle more details. They are starting to get the idea that death is forever. This is the time kids may think in terms of magic and wishes and that death may be avoided by luck or merit. They need honest answers.
Teenagers get it. They know everyone dies eventually. At this age, believe it or not, your child is likely pondering his own mortality. He will need to find meaning in the death of a loved one. Questions from your teen may not have anything to do with how the body stopped working. He's trying to grasp the meaning of life. If it's a peer who has died, the teen may feel guilty. Keep communication open and let your teenager know it's okay to grieve.
You know your child best. Everyone is unique and ready for different things at different times. Go with your gut instinct on this one. If you're honest from the start when your preschooler has questions about the dead bugs, it'll be easier when he has to face the loss of someone important.
Incredible resources for specific scenarios
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