When Young Children Deal with Death
As adults, we understand and accept that death is an inevitable part of life. But for very young children, death can be confusing and scary. As a parent, your child will look to you for understanding and comfort when a family member, a close friend, or a beloved pet dies. However, it can be difficult to know just what to say to a toddler or young child when a death has occurred. You don’t want to brush it off or use euphemisms that could make things even worse.
Although experts have different ideas as to how to handle the delicate subject of death with children, below are some general guidelines. Keep in mind that each child and situation is different; you’ll need to consider your child’s particular level of maturity and understanding. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. If your child asks you additional questions (which is very likely), answer them honestly and simply each time they come up.
Explain Death in Simple Terms
When you talk to your young child about death, you need to use very simple and concrete language. Keep it real and honest. It’s okay to say, gently, that “Grandpa died. That means you won’t be able to talk to him or see him anymore.” Words like “passed away” or “departed” are confusing and much too vague for a young child to grasp.
You can explain to your child that when people (and animals) die it means their bodies have stopped working. They can no longer talk, walk, breathe, eat, or play anymore. Using simple, concrete words will give your child a context to which he or she can relate. You can also explain that this happened because they were very old, or really sick, or because their body was broken (e.g. if the death was due to a car accident) and the doctors couldn’t fix them.
Avoid Euphemisms for Death
Many adults use confusing euphemisms when they talk to toddlers and young children about death. One of the most common euphemisms for death is “sleeping.” While you may think that this term makes death less scary to a child, it often has the opposite effect. Small children spend a significant amount of time sleeping; it’s one of the most basic aspects of their existence. Saying that a deceased love one is sleeping may cause your child to fear that he or she will go to sleep and not wake up, or that the same thing might happen to you when you go to bed at night.
Other confusing euphemisms for death include “gone away,” “gone to a better place,” or “has gone bye-bye.” Grown-ups and friends “go away” or “go bye-bye” all the time, so don’t use those same words for death. Again, stick with realistic and simple language. Doing so will help your child begin to understand that “dead” means something very different from these other terms.
Provide Plenty of Comfort and Care
While children don’t really begin to grasp what death means until they are much older, even infants are impacted by a death in the family. They can sense that something has changed and that everyone around them is sad and grieving. This is why it’s crucial that give your child extra care and comfort during this difficult time. Hug and hold your child more often, cuddle and play with him or her as much as possible, and make extra sure that all his or her needs are met.
Don’t Hide Your Grief
Parents often try to hide all of their sadness and grief from young children. While it’s absolutely okay to mourn in private, it’s also okay to let your child see that you are sad – including seeing your tears. You want your child to learn that grieving is normal , healthy, and okay; painful feelings shouldn’t be hidden or pushed away. One caveat: reassure your child that you’re not angry, upset, or sad because of something he or she did.
It’s perfectly fine to allow small children to attend a funeral. After all, this is a very significant event. If they are especially restless, active, or fussy, having a sitter to watch them and attend to their needs during the service may be a good idea. Be sure to explain that a funeral is a special time to say goodbye to the person who has died. Let them know that people at the funeral may be crying and upset because, like you, they are very sad.
Coping with Pet Deaths
Never underestimate the impact on a child when a beloved pet dies. For many children, this can be an especially painful and traumatic loss. The death of a pet, however, can be a great teaching opportunity. You can help your child understand that Fido or Kitty Kat can’t eat or play or sleep anymore. Have a little funeral and burial (or memorial service, if the pet was cremated) for the pet and allow your child to participate. Help your child create a photo album or scrapbook to remember all the happy times shared with that pet. Don’t rush to get a new pet; it’s okay to allow your child to grieve and find some closure first.
Books about Death for Young Children
There are many books available to help young children understand death through stories. Some excellent choices include The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages, by Leo Buscaglia; Water Bugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Children by Doris Stickney; Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies by Janis Silverman; and Gentle Willow: A Story for Children About Dying by Joyce C. Mills.