Talking To Your Children About Death

"We took our cat to the vet for a check-up. Everything was fine, but when we brought him home and opened the travel box that he was in, he was dead. What do I tell my daughter? It was her cat."

"I know it may sound ridiculous, but my son won a fish at a street fair, and three days later it died. He absolutely fell apart. About a fish! I don't know what to say to him."

"My husband died last night. How do I tell our son?"

When a child experiences the death of a person or of a beloved pet, it can be a heart-wrenching experience for everyone. As parents, there are many things we can do prior to our children experiencing this kind of loss which can help them understand death and ultimately ease the heartache when they experience it.

The topic of death is difficult for most people. It is something most of us would prefer not to think about. It brings to mind our own mortality, perhaps, or reminds us of the grief we've experienced when someone we loved died. Because it is so difficult to think about, most parents wait until their children experience a death before confronting the issue and discussing what death means. This is a mistake. Children have more difficulty processing the "why" of a loved one dying when they are in the midst of coping with the shock of the event itself. In addition, when someone or something your child loves dies, it's likely that you will grieve too. Many parents, caught up in their own grief, fail to recognize their child's needs and to support their children through the grieving process.

Just as you teach your child about the other issues that life presents, so too must you teach your child about the end of life. There are many opportunities to begin this education. The seasons of the year, for example, provide an excellent medium to discuss the beginnings and endings which are a part of life's cycle. You can also look around for "teachable moments": a dead bird on the street, a neighbor's dog dying, a moment on a video to which your child has been exposed - all of these can provide a springboard to introduce whatever your beliefs are about death to your child.

In addition, at various times in their lives, children experience curiosity or concern about death. These, too, are opportunities to explore the meaning of death with children. For example, when your three or four year old becomes obsessed with graveyards, and wants you to stop the car on your family vacation so he can stare solemnly at tombstones, it is your chance to recognize his curiosity, to ascertain whether he has any questions, and to explain your views about death based upon your religious beliefs. When your six or seven year old suddenly becomes concerned that you will die when he's at school or asleep, this is an opportunity to acknowledge his feelings of fear, to explore with him what death means and how we can handle the uncertainties which life presents. It is, of course, also important to reassure him that your death is not imminent.

When you talk about the topic of death with your child be sure to speak in a straightforward and clear manner. Take into account your child's age and developmental level because you want to be careful not to scare your child. Remember that the point of introducing the concept of death is to assist your child through the grieving process when they actually experience a death, not to depress and frighten her. To this end, a more matter of fact approach is often best - reassuring your child that death is a necessary and vital part of life's process. It's also best to avoid euphemisms, which usually confuse rather than enlighten. So for example, speak about "death," not "loss."

As you take advantage of the "teachable moments" which life will present to you, encourage your child to ask questions. When your child sees a dead pigeon, ask her if she has any questions about it. Frame your answers based upon your beliefs as well as upon scientific fact. If you have no belief system in place about death, don't hesitate to tell your child that "some people believe _____, other people believe _____. You can choose what to believe." One four year old, upon being told that no-one is really sure what happens after death, and that she could decide for herself, replied "I believe that when you die, your body goes under the ground to help keep things growing. But the other part of you goes up into the sky and waits for a baby to be born and then you come back as that new baby."

It's important to allow your child to express his beliefs, even if they're different from yours. He will probably revise or elaborate upon his initial philosophy many times during his lifetime. Developing a belief system is an important part of processing the concept of death and most peoples' adult ideology is a mixture of the religious beliefs held by their parents and their own ideas based upon life experiences. So even though the belief your child professes now may be different from yours, it's likely that in the long run his philosophy will resemble yours in some way.

While nothing can truly prepare any of us for the death of someone or something we love, when a child feels as though the subject can be comfortably addressed within the family, and that it's not off limits, it gives her the opportunity to work through her grief in the healthiest possible manner when she does experience the death of a loved one.

Note: A great book for children about death is "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney" by Judith Viorst. And for a more in-depth look at grieving, dying and death, and how you as a parent can help your child handle loss, I recommend "The Grieving Child: a parent's guide" by Helen Fitzgerald.