How children understand death
Young children comprehend death differently from older children and adults. Up until about age seven or eight, most children are unable to form ideas about ‘forever’ or ‘never’; they are much too tied into the present. If they have heard about heaven or hell, they imagine them to be like places they have seen on earth, rather than in any abstract sense. They try to understand death in terms of things they know, such as ‘going away’ or ‘going to sleep’. Unfortunately, these ideas can lead to misconceptions that increase children’s fear or sense of insecurity.
Tips for talking about death
Don’t dodge the issue
If your children ask you about death, it’s important that you answer them directly, rather than trying to avoid the issue. If you deflect the question or put your children off (for example, ‘You’re too young’ or ‘We’ll talk about that later’), it’s inevitable that your child will still have questions, and perhaps misconceptions, about death. Added to whatever notions they have will be the idea that death is so scary and terrible that even their parents are afraid to talk about it!
Use the word ‘death’
Euphemisms like ‘going to sleep’ or ‘going away’ or even the commonly accepted ‘passed away’ can be confusing for young children. Also, by avoiding the word ‘death’, you unintentionally make the thing even more frightening than it is. If saying ‘death’ is hard for you, try to use it in talking to yourself, or to adult friends, so that you can feel less uncomfortable with the word.
Wait for your child to ask
While it’s important to talk to children about the subject of death, it usually doesn’t help to offer lots of explanations if your child isn’t ready to hear them. Either your child will just tune you out, or your child will become confused. Children might let you know they’re thinking about death non-verbally – for example, by drawing pictures of people lying down or by making things blow up in play. If this happens, you can gently ask, ‘Are you thinking about death?’
Deal with your own emotions, but don’t try to hide them completely
If you’re feeling personal grief or extremely upset, it’s important to find adult supports – friends, relatives, clergy, or professional counsellors – so that you can begin to cope. Young children should not have to be the main emotional supports for their parents. They have enough work dealing with their own emotions.