The best way to discuss death with children is to utilize everyday moments from a very young age. For example, when you see a dead bug on the sidewalk stop and look at it, discuss what happened, that it’s body stopped working and the bug died. It is also a good idea to bury it so that this concept is also introduced early on. Fish also provide many teachable moments to discuss death and burial. Children can learn about funerals by having one for their pets. The structure of the “service” can be helped along by your description of a funeral as a way to say good-bye to someone we love when we bury them. Funerals should be encouraged as they provide meaning, structure, and appreciation for a life and a shared time. “Thank you for your life” is a favorite refrain.
When children are helped to observe the lifespan of things whether it is pets, people, or possessions, it helps them to gradually develop an understanding of a beginning, middle, and an end, an understanding of the concept of lifetime.
The age of a child is relevant only with regard to vocabulary and repetition, not truthfulness. Children are great observers but poor interpreters so they need parental guidance. One of the most important things to realize is that children will go through difficult things with or without their parents, better with them. Explain when a loved one is sick or dying. Children relate to the world through their senses so explain what they are hearing, seeing, feeling; You can see that Grandpa is getting weaker and can’t walk as well, you can hear that he can’t talk as well, you can feel that he is not the same. Tell children the truth; use the word cancer, tumor, or heart attack. It is important to know that children will develop their own explanations if not given one and that these explanations can be inaccurate and frightening. Children must know that their parents are trustworthy and truthfulness is part of that.
Children will be sad when they hear about the death of someone, but that sadness is appropriate. Being sad about someone loved who has died shows good attachment, an ability to be loving and caring and form relationships. It is important to give children permission to feel sad, they need to know that the adults around them can handle their sadness and not try to distract them from their real feelings. Children do not develop positive coping skills without good modeling. An approach can be to verbalize the idea of collecting their coping techniques like an “emotional tool bag” so that they become aware of how they already help themselves with big feelings, and this can help them feel more in control. This tool bag is essentially talking and clarifying what tools are already utilized and to become aware of new and different ideas that might help.
There will and be MANY conversations with children about death and dying over days/weeks/months/years. This is as it should be. It is important in supporting children through loss that they feel that no question is off limits and that they will be guided through the experience.