Explaining death to kids

Kids may not fully comprehend what it means when a loved one dies, but they have a right to grieve and to be gradually taught what death is

Death is the most difficult concept to understand and accept. As adults, over time we become used to the presence of death in our lives. When someone we love passes away, we have the life experience and intellectual capacity to cope with the loss. For children, however, the death of a loved one is a complicated idea that they are not equipped to process. And when we adults find ourselves needing to explain the death of a parent, a grandparent or a sibling to a child, we are at a loss.

A personal story

When my parents had to explain the death of my seven-year-old sister Donna to my sister Linda, who was two at the time, it was in the simplest terms. Donna died in a plane crash in 1952, which presented a complicated situation for my parents to explain to a two-year-old. From what my mother related to me [I was born two years after the plane crashed into their home], they told Linda that Donna was hurt very badly and that she could not be saved. Although this satisfied Linda initially, she continued to ask when Donna was coming home. My parents had to repeat often that she would not be coming back. As Linda got older, my parents explained the accident in greater detail, in line with her level of understanding. They also needed to deal with explaining to their kids that tragedies happen, in this case a plane crash. I have often wondered how their handling of the situation would measure up to today’s standards.

Be truthful, open and direct

So, what is the best way to address the death of a loved one to a child? According to experts, it depends on the age of the child, but honest, open communication is essential. All agree that it is important to avoid euphemisms. Use the words died, dead and death in a direct manner, advises Abigail Brenner, MD, and psychiatrist in San Francisco.  “Explain the circumstances of the death in simple terms,” says Dr. Brenner, “If a child is very young, refrain from using pat phrases or euphemisms. Older children are even capable of understanding the nuances and circumstances surrounding a death.”

Consider the child’s age

The developmental phase of the child should also be taken into account, explains Justin Butler, a social worker in Brooklyn. “For a child who is too young to process object permanence in any way, it’s mostly important to tell them that the person is gone and not coming back, without trying to make them understand the concept of death,” Butler says.

Patricia Sheehy, author in Connecticut, had to unexpectedly introduce her grandchildren to the concept of death. “Our adult daughter, single and in the midst of planning her wedding, was diagnosed with advanced, aggressive pancreatic cancer and given about eight weeks to live,” Sheehy explains, “Faced with the need to tell grandchildren of varying ages, we found the best approach was a balance of honesty and gradual disclosure. First we told them that she was sick; a couple of weeks later, we explained she was very sick and the doctors were making her comfortable but she may not get better. At that point, when they visited her, they were prepared for how weak she was. Basically, we continued the dialogue so they were part of the journey and not surprised by her death. It was always a gentle unfolding of the truth.”

“Age makes a difference,” notes Elayne Savage, Ph.D., and family therapist in Berkeley. “Kids under the age of five or six are literal and so explanations need to be basic and simple.” She suggests an example: “Grandma died yesterday. We won’t be able to see her again. She died because she was old and her body stopped working.”

Allow children to grieve

It is also important for a child to grieve, just as an adult needs a mourning period, Dr. Brenner counsels. “Children are far more perceptive about what’s happening around them than many adults realise,” she says, “Children need to grieve too, in whatever way they can.”

Dr. Savage agrees, “Kids seem to know these things whether you tell them or not, so it’s best to be truthful.” She also advises never to keep the death a secret, in order to try and spare children the pain.

Keep teachers informed

Dr. Savage added that keeping a child’s teacher informed of the death is important too.  “For example,” Dr. Savage says, “you don’t want the teacher saying, ‘well, your grandma is in heaven now’ when you are not telling the child this.”

Parents model the grieving process

Dr. Brenner underscored that children learn how to express grief from the way their parents grieve. “Parents who are capable of expressing their emotions and displaying their feelings positively show children that they can do the same thing. If parents can openly express grief, and yet still stay present and grounded in their lives, it reassures children that even in the midst of profound sorrow, they will be able to move on with their lives,” she says.

Communication within the family helps everyone move on after someone close passes away. Dr. Brenner adds, “Open, honest communication is shown to be a vital determinant of how well family members move through and beyond the profound grief, deep sense of loss, and psychological vulnerability they experience after the death of a loved one, especially in the case of the death of a sibling.”

Final thoughts

Although my parents would have surely benefited from this kind of advice, as well as the support of a professional, they were able to provide my sister and me with a positive and inspiring model of how to move beyond grief. One of their most hopeful measures was to have another child after the death of their daughter—me.

While talking to children about death

  • Be open and truthful
  • Take into account the age of the child
  • Avoid using euphemisms—be direct
  • Encourage open communication within the family
  • Don’t keep the death a secret
  • Explain the details according to their level of understanding
  • Understand that the child needs to grieve too.

This was first published in the April 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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