Explaining Death to Young Children
How to teach young kids about death
Talking to your child about death is not one of those topics that a parent looks forward to, in fact, usually, parents put it off till they need to explain. As with many children, usually the first time a child is exposed to death is with a family pet, this was the case for my child. When our family cat needed to be euthanized, I knew we were going to need to address the topic of death to our 4-year old daughter. It was a topic I contemplated many times because I wanted to approach it with mindfulness, compassion, and clarity. Here are some essential tips to consider when discussing death with your child regardless of your religious background.
How to explain death to young children:
1. Use accurate Language: It is important to be very careful with the words you use when talking about death. Many people use the phrase “passed away” instead of saying died or is dead. It is important to be clear to eliminate confusion and ambiguity. For example, many people refer to death as “just sleeping” or “asleep,” but this can be very confusing and scary for young children. If a child begins to associate sleep with death and not waking up, then they can develop a fear of sleeping. It is also important to explain what it means, in a simple, non-graphic or scary away. For example, when someone dies, their heart and brain stop working. When a heart and brain stop working the body doesn’t move, or think, or play, or do anything. It just stops.
2. Be perceptive & don’t feel like you need to explain it ALL: When you explain death to a child, it is important to be aware of how they are handling the information. Children can easily become overwhelmed by too much information, so be aware of how your child is processing and do not give them more information than they can take in. Explain a little and wait for a response. They may have a question, like “will they come back?” Explain how you see fit however, it is important to be mindful of the words you pick to explain because they may be easily misconstrued. You may decide to only tell your child death comes to living things that are too old, rather than old and/or sick. For us, I decided to omit death is a result of sick because children get sick frequently. If a child associates sick with death, then they can develop a fear of being sick because they may think they will die. Another example of explaining only what needs to be explained, being mindful of their age, and what they can process.
When it came time to explain to my child that “meows” needed to be euthanized, I decided to omit the detail of us euthanizing him and instead just explained he “died last night.” We told her He was very calm and happy when he died, but unfortunately, he was very old and when an animal gets very very old, they die. Their heart and brain stop working and they stop moving. She was sad once she processed, she would never see him again. We decided to call her cousin (who is two years older than her) who had recently lost a family dog a few weeks prior. Being able to talk to someone who was her age and who she loved and looked up to offered immeasurable support. Lastly, we let her pick out a stuffed animal online that reminded her of “meows” so she would always have something to remind her of him.
When we explained the death of our family cat to our daughter, we were careful to use accurate words and descriptions, but to keep things short and simple. She had a few questions about what happened to him, if he would come back, how he died and so forth that we answered. We let her take the lead of the conversation and continued until she felt satisfied with the information given. All in all, this was a very easy “death” experience for her developmentally and the information we supplied her with gave her a simple, yet accurate understanding of what happens; but this topic is not always easy. There are plenty of cases where it can be a friend or a family member, in which, the explanation gets a bit trickier. Either way, it is important to remember these points when approaching this topic with young children. If you feel like you need further backup, it is advisable to seek out counseling from a licensed child psychologist, who will be able to supply you with more detailed information on best practices for you and your family.
Take home points:
1. Use accurate language
2. Avoid using the word “sleep” to describe death
3. You may choose to avoid the work “sick” and opt for “very old” when explaining the why
4. Explain it in short doses and wait for response and understanding
5. Use your community and network for support
6. Having something to remember them by; stuffed animal, picture, special item etc.
Here are some great resources to help you and your child this difficult time: