Explaining Death to Children
“Why can’t Grandpa talk to me?” “Is Uncle Mike going to die?” “Why do people die?” These are questions sometimes asked by children when their loved one is dying. It’s hard to know what to say to children when a loved one is nearing the end of life.
Children are perceptive and can tell that something is wrong, even when people try to hide it. Instead of trying to shelter children from the dying process, it’s best to include them in the process and take cues from them as to how much they want to be a part of the process.
Honesty is important. Children will have all kinds of questions. It is okay to reply “I don’t know” to some questions. It is best to use the words “dying” and “dead” instead of other terms that might confuse them. It’s best not to say that their loved one is “sick” or “sleeping” while they are nearing death. Phrases such as “she has gone away” or “he is on a trip” after the individual has died can create expectations for the loved one to come back. These phrases don’t express the finality of death.
It is also helpful to express your own emotions and not to hide them. Cry in front of your children. Share your feelings and encourage children to share theirs, too. If a child feels like crying, encourage them to do so. If they don’t, that is fine, too. Young children may want to express their emotions through drawing, writing, or storytelling. Children, as everyone, grieve in their own way and in their own time. They may talk about the death in ways that directly affect them. When a young child lost his father recently, he wanted to know “Can I have Daddy’s computer?” That may sound cold to some, but to that child, it was something he could relate to. If Daddy is gone, he won’t need his computer any more.
Another way to assist children through the dying process is to include them in decisions. We would all agree that we want to “protect” our children from pain. However, death is a reality, and if they are sheltered from it, they may never have closure. If a child states that he or she wants to see their loved one, it should be their decision after hearing all the facts. A child should be told what the patient looks like and if the patient will respond to them or not. The child might be frightened by the presence of oxygen and other medical equipment, so it’s best to let them know what they’ll see and answer questions about it. If the child says that they don’t want to see the patient, don’t force them. Children may want to remember loved ones the way they were prior to illness.
Be patient, understanding, available, and hug them often, if they like physical touch. Be ready to talk to children and answer their questions on several occasions. Children will process their thoughts about dying over time, and they will do it differently based on their emotional maturity. They may not talk about it for a few days, and then have several questions throughout the next day.
Remember that grieving is a process. Whether you are young or old, grieving is painful, but it is important to experience it and not try to avoid it or shield someone from it. Allow grief to be expressed in healthy ways, and seek help from others if you or your children need it. Contact our bereavement department (520-544-9890 or firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
By Kim Bingham, Social WorkerBack to Articles