How to Introduce the Concept of Death to Your Child? Experts Suggest Start Early
@ Pritika Nair · Friday, May 14, 2021 · 10 minute read · Update at May 14, 2021

Start talking to your child about death early

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I’m a simple stay-at-home-mom like most others. I have two kids, 7 and 4. I try to lead a simple and happy life with them, going about my everyday duties as their mom.

But life isn’t so simple and happy always, is it? There is turbulence, sometimes unexpected, minor or major. COVID has been one such disruption in all of our lives. I speak for everyone when I say that it has perturbed each one of our seemingly simple and happy lives in some way or the other.

Some of us were even unfortunate to have either witnessed or heard of the news of losing a dear one to COVID. And when you have kids in the family who notice, witness, or experience it with you, it’s not always easy.

I too lost a dear one to COVID last month and when the news came (as a shock to me, of course), I couldn’t hide the reaction or grief from my kids. They were quick to notice the tears, the change of facial expression, just about everything that changed in me within a fraction of a second.

And then it came from my older one at first - “Mummy, what happens when someone dies?", and the younger one couldn’t have been too far behind in copying action and following suit, so she queried, “When will she come back?”

Questions that hit hard, yes, but they come from minds that are curious, seeking answers to all the known and unknown in the world around them. I realized it’s important to let them know. If not now, then when? Today it’s the news of someone related to just me; tomorrow it could be someone close to them too. They need to know, to learn to deal with this bare reality.

And this is why I write this post today to share with everyone who’s reading this that however uncomfortable a subject this may appear, it’s unavoidable just like marriage or how babies are born.

Your child’s going to throw them at you, sooner or later. And yes, later does seem convenient for now, for you’d think there’s still time for them to grow up and understand these things. But what happens when life throws surprises like the one it did at me last month? And yes, before writing this post, I did my research, looked up journals that highlight the view of child experts suggesting that the sooner you introduce the concept of death to a child, the better it always is.

Why It’s Important to Start Talking Early About Death to Your Child

Child development experts, child psychologists and grief specialists are of the opinion that it’s always a better idea to give a fair understanding of something as natural as death to a child in the house. This would help them get prepared in case of an unexpected death of a loved one.

According to experts, there are 3 different developmental stages that children can be categorized into. Depending on which stage your child is at, you may choose to approach the subject accordingly:

  1. Age 1 - 4 years: Toddlers and preschoolers generally view death as something that is temporary, impersonal, and even reversible. Can’t blame them because their understanding of the concept is limited to what they watch on the television - in movies and cartoons - where their favorite superhero “rises” from death to save the world!

    If you choose to explain the concept to your toddler/preschooler (the way I did), make sure you clarify those ideas first. Tell them that it isn’t real what happens in the cartoons and that death is in fact permanent. However, don’t expect much because children this age usually don’t understand the “permanence” of things.

  2. Age 5 - 9 years: This is the time when a child would begin to notice and even understand a bit that all living beings and things eventually die at some point. They also understand that death is indeed permanent. However, they still find it impersonal, meaning they aren’t able to relate themselves or see someone close to them being in that position, and this is what can make them scared.

    It’s important then to make your child feel reassured and I’ve detailed it below in the post.

  3. Age 9 - adolescence: Your child can now fully understands that death is permanent and irreversible, and that it happens to everyone eventually, including them.

Moving on, I share how I approached the subject. And yes, it definitely helped. Both my kids now know what death means and that it happens to all of us.

Death is as natural a process as birth. It’s just uncomfortable to talk about because it evokes emotions of sorrow or fear in us. However, this in no way makes the process itself unnatural.

How to Explain the Concept of Death to a Child?

As parents, we naturally tend to feel protective about our children. We feel an urge to protect them from all things negative or uncomfortable. But when things are for real, there’s not much evading them for long and so it becomes important to prepare our kids for them.

1. Keep it simple and clear. Avoid confusing words/phrases

Be direct in your approach. Say it out clearly; avoid beating around the bush. Start with something like “All living things die one day. They stop functioning or working. They don’t eat, drink, or breathe anymore.”

Your child at this point is likely to have questions like “how” or “why”. To make things clearer, you could try explaining to your child through examples of the life cycle of a plant, butterfly, or any other living thing. This particularly works when explaining about death to a toddler/preschooler since they’d learn better through objects and examples.

Try and keep it simple, brief and clear, avoiding any gory details. Also, it’s very important to avoid using ambiguous words/phrases during your talk, such as “gone away”, “in deep rest”, “passed away”, “lost”, “crossed over”, or “went to deep sleep”. They’re likely to confuse the child more and result in even more questions like - “So when will they wake up from sleep”.

They might even assume that they may not be able to wake up from their sleep the same way or that they’d die too. Likewise, answers like “gone away” or “lost” may prompt questions such as, “So when will they come back” or “How can we find them now?”

It’s better to stick to being honest here by using words like “died” or “dead” instead and explaining calmly what they really mean.

2. Understand and accept their feelings

Children tend to react differently to the subject or even the news of the death of a loved one, depending on what age they’re at. Small children may not feel or express their emotions as deeply as older kids. Anyhow, it’s important to validate the child’s emotions, accept what they’re feeling and be reassuring of your presence and love.

Whether it’s the fear in their mind, anxiety, or grief, be sure to address them all. Encourage them to share their feelings with you so that you can help them understand better and deal with them.

Validate your child’s feelings and comfort them

Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

3. It’s okay to grieve before your child; be honest with your feelings as well

There really is no need to hide what you’re feeling deep inside (especially at the death of a loved one) before your child for fear of them feeling the same way or getting scared.

When we parents share our feelings with our kids, they understand that even our feelings matter, giving them the guideline to follow suit - to know that their feelings matter too. This also means that if your child wants to express their feelings by crying, it’s okay to allow them to do so.

Also, it’d let the child know that it’s okay and perfectly natural to talk or emote your feelings about death. It might even encourage a hesitant child to open up and start asking questions to understand the concept better.

4. Share in bits; it’s difficult for little minds to grasp it all at once

Remember that you’re dealing with a difficult conversation here so depending on your child’s age, reaction or emotional response, and understanding, proceed with sharing more information. Also remember that children learn best through repetition so you might have to go over the topic with the child a couple of times before they can actually understand.

Sometimes the child may only be able to understand a fraction of what you share and then get on with play or other activities. It’s okay to let them do so. Perhaps wait for them to approach you with any questions later or better still leave it at that.

If the child’s old enough, they’re more likely to pose more questions. Be open and accepting to answer them. Here again, make sure you dole out information in bits and small doses for them to understand everything better and clearer.

Most important, it’s perfectly okay for any parent to say “I don’t know” in response to some question that your child may ask and you genuinely don’t have the response to. Besides, since you might be dealing with grief yourself, it may be difficult for you to answer everything so don’t force yourself to do so if you don’t want to but make sure you tell this to the child calmly.

By talking to your child about death, you’re not scaring them; you’re preparing them to face the future stronger.

5. Don’t avoid the subject completely

It’s human to avoid talking about things that we aren’t comfortable about. We fear that it may upset us or someone we love, or that we may not have all the answers to it.

So it’s only natural to quickly change the topic of conversation with a friend/relative (if you’ve been discussing about the death of a loved one) as soon as the child comes in or seems to be overhearing.

Avoid doing that because those curious little minds are not easy to shut out. Also, you’re unconsciously giving the impression that death is “taboo” like any other uncomfortable subject in the house. It may just leave the child wondering, confused, or even prompt them to seek information about it elsewhere.

If the child’s been overhearing a conversation going about, make sure you talk to them later when you’re alone on what or how much they understood. Answer questions and deal with their feelings or thoughts.

If the child’s gotten scared listening to the whole thing between you and another person, calm them down with patience. Explain to them in your own way by adjusting the wording and the amount of information depending on their age.

Also, make sure the child understands that everyone or every living thing that they see in this world is mortal. When they know that everybody, including them, will die one day, assure them by saying that it would happen one day when they get old. Make sure you hug and cuddle them, reassuring of your love and presence at all times and that they don’t need to be afraid of losing you right away.

Summing Up

Death is as natural a process as birth. It’s just uncomfortable to talk about because it evokes emotions of sorrow or fear in us, the fear of the unknown. However, this in no way makes the process itself unnatural. It will happen nonetheless and can happen anytime.

Why it’s important for our kids to know is because it comes unexpected, most of the time. It may happen in the family or with someone close to your child. When you’re grieving, it becomes difficult to explain concepts to the child then. It’s therefore needed to start the process early - as early as toddler/preschool age, making sure to reinforce the concept as they grow older.

Remember it’s not taboo to talk about death. You’re only helping your child face and deal with what lies ahead. But again, approach the subject according to their age and level of understanding. Help your child face the world stronger.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 5 Tips to Distract Your Mind Off COVID-19 Anxiety and Stress

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Meet the S.A.H.M

Hi! I’m Pritika, the mom behind Stay At Home Mummy. I was inspired to choose this name for the blog because I’m a proud stay-at-home-mom to two lovely kids. Graduate In Journalism and professional writer for 16 years, I have experienced the bitter-sweet reality of placing kids over work commitments and pushing back your own dreams to realise theirs.

Yet, I didn’t let the passion for writing in me die out. Stay at Home Mummy is an attempt to make all those beautiful SAHMs out there feel proud of being one because motherhood isn’t an excuse to let your passion take a back seat.

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