How do you explain death to a child?

As an estate planner, I often help clients deal with the steps in planning for death. I also face the spouses or children of those clients once their loved one has passed.

 A client, whose mother passed away and was in my office to administer her mother’s trust, asked, “how do I help my child deal with the death of their grandmother?”

 When a loved one dies it’s difficult to know how to help kids cope with the loss, more so while you deal with your own grief.

How much a child understands about death varies greatly depending on their age, life experience, and personality. Not all children cope with grief the same way.  There are however, a few important things to remember.

BE HONEST

Explain the best way you know how and encourage questions. Although you may not have all the answers, it’s important to create a comfortable atmosphere that allows for openness and allows the child to understand there is no right or wrong way to feel.

As children get older, they begin to understand that death is final and may “wish” that someone would not die. Children ages 6-10 tend to deal best with death when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened.

As kids mature into teens, they start to understand that every human being eventually dies, regardless of grades, behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do.

EXPLAIN WHAT DEATH IS

You may need to explain to a child what “death” or “dying” means. For example, you can explain that a person’s body stopped working. If the deceased is elderly, you could explain that the body became old and the doctor’s couldn’t fix it. Or in cases of a sudden accident, you could explain that the event was so sad the body just stopped working.

Young children often have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that it’s final and they won’t come back. They may continue to ask where the loved one is and although it may be frustrating, you may have to explain that the person has died and won’t be returning.

Avoid using euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved one “went away” or “went to sleep” or even that your family “lost” the person. Because young kids think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.

REMEMBER CHILDREN’S QUESTIONS MAY NOT BE AS DEEP AS YOU THINK

Remember that kids’ questions may sound much deeper than they really are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where someone who died is now probably isn’t asking whether there’s an afterlife. Kids might be satisfied hearing that someone who died is now in the cemetery. This could be a good time to share your beliefs about an afterlife or heaven if that is part of your belief system.

However as teens, children may begin to question mortality or vulnerability and the meaning of life. A teen may ask “why” it happened, not in the literal sense, but as a way for them to understand life. If a 16-year-old has a friend who died in a car accident, they may be less inclined to want to get behind the wheel or ride in the car. Your best approach is to empathize with the your teen and explain that you understand how frightened and scared they must be. This will also be a good time to review safe driving habits- no texting or talking on the phone while driving, always wear a seatbelt, or not to get into a car with someone who has been drinking.

MOURNING THE LOSS

A question often asked is whether or not it is appropriate to take a child to a funeral. There is no right or wrong answer- it depends on you and your child. It is best to explain what the funeral or memorial is and let them decide.

It’s important to prepare the child for what may occur- the open casket, individuals speaking, others crying, as well as other mourning processes. Explain your spiritual beliefs and the meaning behind the mourning rituals.

If you think your grief may interfere with explaining the death to your child, ask a friend or a family member to care for and focus on your child during the service.

Many parents worry about letting their kids witness their own grief, pain, and tears about a death. Don’t — allowing your child to see your pain shows that crying is a natural reaction to emotional pain and loss. And it can make kids more comfortable sharing their feelings. But it’s also important to convey that no matter how sad you may feel, you’ll still be able to care for your family and make your child feel safe.

GETTING MORE HELP

As kids learn how to deal with death, they need space, understanding, and patience to grieve in their own way.

They might not show grief as an adult would. A young child might not cry or might react to the news by acting out or becoming hyperactive. A teen might act annoyed and might feel more comfortable confiding in peers. Whatever their reaction, don’t take it personally. Remember that learning how to deal with grief is like coping with other physical, mental, and emotional tasks — it’s a process.

Nevertheless, watch for any signs that kids need help coping with a loss. If a child’s behavior changes radically — for example, a gregarious and easygoing child becomes angry, withdrawn, or extremely anxious; or goes from having straight A’s to D’s in school — seek help.

Seek out help from a school counselor, doctor, or mental health professional. One of these professionals may be able to suggest books or videos to help manage grief.

Although parents would like to shield their children from the sadness and losses of life, they can’t. Helping them cope with their emotions and building resources that help them understand their feelings will give them tools to manage throughout life.

What tips do you have for explaining death to a child? What has helped you? 

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