Many parents say that explaining death to children is one of the toughest topics. So if you haven’t had that talk, are you ready this afternoon? Chances are highly likely that your child will ask you about death if not today then sometime soon. After all, the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett is not only front page news, but also the hot playground topic. And when kids are the ones delivering the news, chances are also high that the facts about death will be wrong. Now is the time to open up the discussion, explain death to your child in terms he understands, and answer any questions.
Children’s understanding of death differs vastly from adults, so here are a few points to review before you have that important conversation.
- Describe death in physical terms. Clarify that death means that life stops, the deceased cannot return, and the body is buried. Farrah Fawcett stopped breathing, eating, walking and so he is no longer feeling pain, worrying or hungry. “Michael Jackson died because his heart stopped beating.” Anything less simple and explicit can cause confusion and be misinterpreted by the child.
- Be honest, open, and direct. Clear up any misunderstandings about death your child may have. Give the details your child needs to know. Withhold those facts that are not in your child’s best interests. If you don’t have an answer just admit you don’t know.
- Be prepared for tough questions. The American Academy of Pediatrics says kids are most likely to ask these five questions: “What is death?” “What made the person die?” “Where is the person now?” “Can it happen to me?” “Who will take care of me?”
- Avoid euphemisms. Keep in mind that your child may not grasp the concept of death and take your comments literally. So refrain from statements like: “He is in a deep sleep,” “She was laid to rest.” “He slipped away.” “She is resting peacefully,” “She was very sick and the illness made her die” “God took her away.” Such comments are often confusing and can cause children worry the same thing may happen to them as well: (“If I’m sick I may die, too.” “If I go to sleep I will go to heaven.”)
- Be prepared for tough questions. Michael Jackson was 50 and a father of younger children. Your child may ask: “Will you die?” It’s fine for you to answer, “Not for a long time. I’m taking care of myself and I’m just fine.”
Your child may ask the same question over and over. That’s just how children process information. Encourage those questions and tell your child to come to you anytime. You want this information to come from you so your child gets the right facts about death as well as any other topic.
A child’s understanding of death varies by different ages and stages. Here is a quick review of what to expect:
- Preschool: Think death is only temporary like going to sleep (the dead might or might not wake up after a while). Difficulty separating real from fantasy so they often believe their thoughts or actions may have caused the death (especially if they were “bad). “Wishing hard enough” or “acting right” might bring the deceased back. Abstract concepts such as heaven are difficult to grasp Most assume they personally will not die: it happens only to others.
- School Age: Gradually begin to understand death is final (the dead stay dead and aren’t just sleeping), but still need perspective. May think of death as a person or ghostly figure such as a clown, shadowy death-man, or skeletal figure. Believe thoughts can make things happen so some see the possibility of escaping from death if they are clever or lucky enough. May fear that death is contagious and other loved ones (themselves included) will “catch it” and die as well. Abstract concepts (heaven, an “after live” and spirituality) are still difficult to comprehend.
- Preteens: Ten and up: Most understand that death is an irreversible and inescapable part of life and now aware of the possibility of their own death. More aware how their world will change and impact of losing a loved one has on their future (“Who will go with me to the football banquet?” “Who will walk me down the aisle at my wedding?”) Curiosity about the process of death develops and may ask for more specific details such as: “Is the body cold?” “Where does the body go?”
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Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including the upcoming The Big Book of Parenting Solutions available this fall. Portions of this blog are excerpted from this book.