As much as we would like to shield our children from the fact that all lives come to an end, even very young children are exposed to death and we cannot control when someone close to a child will die. Children are exposed to death in many ways, from dead bugs in the yard to fairy tales, a sick grandparent, the loss of a pet, or characters in video games and movies. Yet few adults raise the topic with children and, when it does come up, we tend to be uncomfortable and change the subject as quickly as possible.
But Kyle D. Pruett, a member of the Goddard School Educational Advisory Board and clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, says that we should raise the topic with children when it is relevant. That could be the death of a mother in a Disney movie, a mosquito squashed with the back of a hand, or an elderly neighbor. According to Pruett, “unemotional, scientific talk about death when it just shows up helps to inoculate them, and us, for those more painful intrusions when something or someone beloved dies.”
To talk with your children about death, Pruett recommends:
Be prepared: Reflect on your own questions about death with a trusted friend or partner so that when you speak with your child, you are clear about what you want to say. If there is a religious component to your understanding of death that you want to convey to your child, be plain and clear about your beliefs.
Be truthful: Lies — even little ones you may want to tell your child to make the subject of death less frightening, such as saying death is always peaceful — may not ring true and can actually cause more uneasiness than they relieve. If you are unsure of an answer or are not prepared to discuss something, saying “I don’t have an answer to that question” is better than lying.
Be accurate: Euphemisms about “eternal rest,” “going away,” or “passing” may be confusing to children. Use accurate terminology.
Be sensitive to your child’s developmental stage: Given how death is often depicted on the screen, young children may have a hard time taking death seriously. They tend to see it as short-lived and reversible, as with a video-game character that comes back to life, or because they have seen movie characters who seem unfazed by the death of a parent. Older children may be beginning to understand that death is serious and complex. Nevertheless, it is still hard for them to understand that death may affect someone with whom they are close, or that it’s permanent. That’s okay.
Be clear: When you talk with your children about death, keep it simple, short and scientific. Because the young mind thinks in concrete terms, it is best to talk about death as a change in function. For example, say, “Since that spider died, he can’t walk anymore,” or, if there is an illness in the family, “When Grandma dies, she will stop breathing, her eyes won’t see anymore, she won’t talk, and she won’t feel anything, either.”
Be reassuring: When discussing death, young children may ask a parent, “Will you die?” When children ask this question, they are usually too young to comprehend that death is permanent. Consequently, try to get to why the child is asking this question — it is usually about reassurance. Ask your child, “Are you worried that I won’t be able to take care of you?” If that is his concern, you can reassure him by saying, “I probably won’t die for a very, very long time, so I’ll be here as long as you need me.” An older child might need even more reassurance and can be told, “If I did die, there are lots of people who would take care of you, like Aunt Dot and Uncle Tom, or Grandpa and Grandma.”
Wait: After you talk with your child about death, she may walk away and go back to playing. Let her. Your child will come back to you, and that is a good time to check in with her about what she understood and ask her if she has any other questions.
It is a sad reality that death will eventually touch us all. As much as we would like to shield our children from this pain, we cannot do so forever. Talking about it now can help children cope later.
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