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Explaining Death To A Child

1)Tell Your Child About the Death

Do not try to "protect" your children, or yourself, from the emotional pain you might experience by telling them about a death. In efforts to protect, parents actually aid in handicapping their children from being able to handle death and grief in a healthy manner (Wolfelt, 1998). The best time to tell children about a death in the family is before a death actually occurs. Talking about death is much easier for everyone when there is no death to yet grieve. Many times though, this is not possible when a death comes unexpectedly. Whenever death occurs, the basic rule of thumb is to tell a child as soon as possible (Dougy Center, 1999a, p.6).

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2) Be Honest

  • Tell The Facts  Some children may not need every little detail, but they do deserve to receive factual information that is geared toward their developmental level. Tell them that their loved one is "dead". "His body stopped working". "He is not breathing any more and he cannot feel, hear, eat, or do any of the things living people can do".
  • Avoid Euphemisms  Do not tell a child that "Daddy has gone to heaven", "Granddad is asleep", "Aunt Jane has gone to a better place", or "Johnny lost his mother". Young children are very literal in their thinking and "may become needlessly confused" and ask, "When is she coming back?" (Rosen, 1996, p.229). Furthermore, "common clich├ęs can hurt the grief process" (Goldman, 2000, p.40).
  • Share How You Feel About The Death Do not be afraid to express your emotions in the presence of children. This will let them know that you are hurting inside too and allow you to comfort each other. You will also teach children by example that it is OK to cry when someone dies. It is normal, natural and healthy. Your children will respect you for being "real".

3) Tell Children in a Familiar Place and From Someone They Love & Trust

Children will feel the most comfortable if they are in a familiar place when they are told of a death. It is worth taking the extra time to tell children when they are at home or in some other familiar setting. It is not best to ask a doctor or nurse at the hospital to tell children that their loved one has died. A trusted family member should tell the children face-to-face in a calm setting. "When children get the news from a stranger, what is already a painful moment is sometimes made worse" (Dougy Center, 1999a, p.7).

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Talking About Death By Age

Infants and Toddlers  0 to 2 Years

Even though infants and toddlers do not yet understand death, they do understand separation from a primary caregiver. When someone close dies, they need the security and comfort in knowing that they will be taken care of. Keeping them on the same eating and sleeping schedule as before the death will help to give them security. They may cry more than normal, so paying special attention to them and holding them more will also help to give them the assurance they need. When possible, minimizing changes in caregivers is also helpful.

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Preschoolers  2 to 6 Years    

Young children do not quickly understand the finality of death. They think in very concrete terms. It takes time for the reality to settle in their young minds. Therefore, the patient repetition of the facts will help to make the finality of the death more of a reality to them. Expect to answer the same questions many times. Speak freely with them about the death and continually reassure them that you love them and will take care of them.

Elementary Age Children  6 to 12 years

From the ages of 6 to 12, children can be expected to ask a lot of hard questions about a death. Answer their questions honestly and directly. Do not leave answers to their imaginations; that can be far worse than the truth. Be prepared to hear some seemingly strange or intense questions. It is all in their honest attempt to learn and understand what has happened. Magical thinking is common during this age also. This is when children believe they caused the death because of something they said, thought, or did (Dougy Center, 1997). For example, a boy might get in trouble for hitting an older sister and wish that "she would just drop dead". When she dies in a car accident a few weeks later he might think his wish came true. Children may feel irrational guilt or shame because of  this magical thinking and therefore need reassurance often that they are not at fault.  

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Adolescents  13 to Adult

The teen years can be difficult years, even without the death of someone close. In many ways they seem like adults (they certainly think they are), however, they need the same patience, listening, acceptance, and display of love that a younger child would require. When a death does occur, the necessity of being open and honest with your teen is heightened (Dougy Center, 1999b). Remember these characteristics about teenagers when a death rocks their world:

  • Teenagers want to be told and they want to be included.
  • Some teenagers want to be home with their family, while others prefer their friends.
  • Some teenagers want to talk about the death, while others do not.
  • Some teenagers want to take care of other surviving family members.
  • Some teenagers withdraw from family and friends.

Bacon, J. B. (1996). Support groups for bereaved children. In Corr, C. A., & Corr, D. M. (Eds.), Handbook of childhood death and bereavement (pp. 285-304). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Dougy Center (1997). Helping children cope with death. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center For Grieving Children.
Dougy Center (1999a). What about the kids? Understanding their needs in funeral planning and services. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center For Grieving Children.
Dougy Center (1999b). Helping teens cope with death. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center For Grieving Children.
Goldman, L. (2000). Life and loss: A guide to help grieving children (2nd. ed.). Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.
Rosen, E. J. (1996). The family as healing resource. In Corr, C. A., & Corr, D. M. (Eds.), Handbook of childhood death and bereavement (pp. 223-243). New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Wolfelt, A. (1998). Helping children cope with grief. Bristol, PA: Accelerated Development, Inc.

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