As parents, it is only natural that you would want to shield your little ones from the harsh and unpleasant realities of life and preserve their childhood innocence as long as you can. However, death is a part of life, and it is only a matter of time before your child faces it.
Death from a child’s perspective
For an under 6-year-old
Until children are about 5 or 6 years old, their view of the world is very literal and they may not be able to comprehend what death means. You can explain to your child in simple terms that death just means a person’s body has stopped working and that the person cannot come back. Children before 5 or 6 years old often have difficulties understanding that all people and living things eventually die and may continue to ask when the person is returning. As frustrating as this is, continue to assure and reiterate to your child that the person has died and cannot come back. At this age, it is also pointless to explain difficult concepts to children such as afterlife.
From 6 to 10 years old
Children start to grasp the finality of death but it is only when children mature into teens that they start to understand death happens to everyone. Your teen may then start to have related questions about mortality and vulnerability.
Explain death and loss honestly
It is important to create an atmosphere of comfort and openness when sharing messages of death and loss with your child. Encourage your child to be open about their feelings and to ask questions if they need to. Be honest and let them know that you do not have all the answers but reassure your child that you will be there to help them cope with the journey. You can choose to share any religious beliefs about death with your child. Remember that under 6, the child may not understand these beliefs, but will parrot them back, probably in a jumble.
Avoid using euphemisms, such as telling your children that the person has “gone away” or “went to sleep”. Children think very literally so they will start associating “going away” or sleeping to death — you do not want to have a hysterical child who refuses to sleep any more, or one who is inconsolable when a beloved relative or friend goes away on holiday.
Celebrate the deceased’s life
A good way to remember and celebrate the life of a person who has passed on is to keep memories of the person. Start a scrapbook, photo album or memory box and store photos and items of the person inside. You can get your child to write notes about the person – such as what he loved about the person or what the person was good at or a fun event they shared together.
Children who are too young may not be able to sit through funeral services without getting distracted so it might be better to bring to funerals only older children who can hold their attention for a longer period of time. Always prepare your child for what he can expect at a funeral service – for example, people may cry during the funeral or funeral processions and talk to them about the rituals and how they should behave during the processions – for example, children should be quiet, not run around or laugh loudly.
By the Book
Here are some books that can help you kickstart a discussion with your child about death and loss.
Ethan: What happened to my baby brother? By Lisa White
Based on a true story, this reassuring book deals with the delicate topic of death by exploring feelings of loss and grief that comes with losing a sibling, as seen through the eyes of a child. It also describes scary places like hospitals with sensitivity.
Separations: Death By Janine Amos, Gwen Green and Angela Hampton
Written from the perspective of children facing the death of their loved ones, this book has plenty of insights to help grieving children. Topics addressed include managing feelings when a loved one dies, coping and moving on with life. This book goes the extra mile by addressing sensitive topics such as the range of feelings a child experiences when a loved one dies–anguish, sadness and being numb and having step-parents after the death of a parent.
Saying goodbye to a friend By Nicola Edwards
Coping with the death of a loved one can be tough but so is coping with the death of a friend. This book helps children to make sense of what happens when children who are their age or younger than them dies. Children are also given insight into funeral processions and rituals so they will know what to expect when they say their goodbyes.