Every parent wishes they could protect their child from suffering a loss, and in the process of arranging a funeral it can seem like an impossible task to discuss the topic of death with a child. These tips help you when it comes to making a child understand and cope with the concept of death.
It is tempting when dealing which children to try and diffuse the situation by using familiar and easy terms which they can understand, but this will ultimately confuse and upset the child further. Telling the child that the deceased is ‘sleeping’ or will be ‘gone away for a while’ will only trigger questions about when they will wake up or return. Explain to the child that the person is dead, and that means that they will not see them anymore.
Do not use euphemisms when speaking to a child about death, be direct with them and use hard terms. Saying that you have ‘lost’ a person can cause complicated emotions of grief and anxiety in children, as they become concerned that another loved one may simply disappear. Similarly, saying that someone is ‘going to sleep for a long time’ could cause anxiety relating to their own bed time.
Ask then Listen
Whether a loved one died following a long illness, or perhaps it is important that you ask the child what they understand about the situation. You may be surprised to learn that the child has perceived much more than you would have assumed. Listen to what they know and then elaborate or clear any misconceptions on how this person died.
The age of the child will determine their understanding of death, so explain the concept in an age appropriate manner. A simple way to tell a child under six that someone died because their body stopped working correctly, and that the doctors tried very hard but they couldn’t fix it – you can then explain the nature of the situation, if it was an illness or an accident. A child between the age of six and ten has a better understanding of the finality of death, so it is important to reassure them regarding the process of dying so they don’t begin to generate anxiety regarding their own mortality. Pre-teens and teenagers are likely to ask you some questions regarding death and the meaning of life so be prepared.
After explaining the situation honestly and clearly, ask the child if they have any questions. Smaller children tend to ask practical questions, like where their loved one is right now, and what they are doing. Try to answer these questions honestly, and be prepared for follow up questions over the coming weeks and months. Older children are likely to not ask any questions to begin with, but make them aware that you are there to discuss anything if they want to.