How do you explain death to a child? How do you break down the concept of death to a three or five-year old? How do you tell them their favorite aunty or pet is gone and not coming back when you are grieving? This is a common parenting dilemma that unfortunately, most parents have had to deal with at some point in their lives. If this describes your current predicament, outlined below are a few tips to help your child understand death.
The first step towards helping your child understand death is keeping in mind that the concept of death between children and adults are two worlds apart. Here is how different children age groups perceive death:
Kids at this stage know nothing about death. They can however sense when you are sad and grieving, and may react by changing their eating and sleeping patterns. They may also be extra moody.
Children in this age believe in magic. They lack critical thinking and will believe in everything they see or hear. Some believe in imaginary friends, and will believe you when you tell their doll is hungry. At this stage, they perceive death as a temporary, reversible occurrence, and believe that dead people will come back. They think the dead cannot move because they’ve been locked inside a casket, or they cannot see because they are underground.
They cannot understand the concept of heaven and hell, and some tend to even think death is a punishment for their bad actions. This perception is further reinforced by the cartoons and movies they watch which depict characters dying and coming back to life.
Children between these ages are more aware of the concepts of mortality. They know that they too will die and are intrigued by death and funeral rituals. They are however still young, and will have a lot of questions about death.
Adolescents are fully aware of death and its inevitability. They question abstract concepts such as heaven and hell and the meaning of life. However, note, adolescents usually want to take on a more adult role in life and will try to suppress their sadness.
The key to helping your child understand death is being honest. Do not try to sugarcoat things by using euphemisms such as “granny is watching over you from heaven” or “he is in a better place”. This will confuse the child even more and may have them thinking the deceased will come back. Tell the truth directly, but use simple, clear, and sensitive words.
Children grieve differently. When you break the news to your child, they may act as if nothing happened but express their sadness by throwing tantrums or even bedwetting. Listen and comfort them but at the same time, be careful not to force them to grieve. Allow them to be silent and work at their own pace. However, while it is essential to let your child grieve their way, do not hold back your tears. Crying shows your child it is okay to be sad and encourages them to grieve instead of repressing their feelings.
As a parent, it is natural to want to protect your child from any negativity. But death is inevitable and it is essential to help them learn how to cope with it. Therefore, allow your child to partake in the funeral arrangements. Let them pick photos for the memorial, the clothes they’ll wear or even sing at the funeral.
Losing a loved one is hard. But having to break the news to a child is harder. Hopefully, the tips above will help make it easier for you to breakdown the news.