For parents, there’s no shortage of interesting inquiries from inquisitive children. Certain events may call for creative explanations, while others require you to tread a bit more carefully.
But even where there are certain sensitivities, there’s no need to get caught up in saying the right phrase at the perfect time – just remember to talk to children honestly and in simple language. Also take comfort in the fact that children are better able to understand the concept of death, as well as cope with it, when they are made aware of it early on in life.
Here are some approaches to help with mindfully guiding childrens’ awareness around death and dying.
Talk openly and honestly
Discussing the concept of death openly and honestly with your child is helpful, regardless of whether the child has encountered an experience with death before. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be by using nuanced or flowery language, and trust that your child is capable of understanding and processing what death is, even without the embellishments.
Any curveball questions from the littlies should equally be met with openness and honesty.
It’s also OK to say that you don’t know things, because let’s face it, not even adults have all the answers when it comes to this stuff!
Break down the concept of death into manageable parts
Before plunging into any explanation of such a complex topic, it may also be useful to break it down into smaller parts that might be understood better in isolation. This minimises any confusion that might arise for a child in trying to understand the concept as a whole, while also helping the person doing the explaining.
Simplify the explanation and use examples
Even when breaking down the concept into smaller, more digestible chunks, it’s easiest to express an explanation in as simple terms as possible. Children may learn about the subject best when their teacher gets ‘to the point’, perhaps saying something like; “death means that something is no longer alive”.
Alternatively, you can take examples from nature or the real world that the child is likely to be familiar with. This makes the concept a little easier for them to grasp. For example:
- “When a leaf falls off a tree and turns brown, it has died and is no longer living.”
- “If someone cuts down a tree, and it’s no longer able to grow, then it has died.”
- “When flowers wilt and turn all brown and crinkly, it’s because they have died.”
Explain permanence and talk about inevitability
Don’t shy away from the hard-hitting aspects of life (and death) when explaining it to kids. It’s important for them to recognise that death is permanent and irreversible, and according to studies, they often can quite easily grasp this reality.
By the same token, children should be thoughtfully guided in understanding that death is in fact a part of life, and that everybody who lives will eventually die at some point!
Discuss biology and disclose the cause
Grounding an explanation of death in simple biology can further support the chats around its inevitability. This means, explaining to children that all living things can die, and that the death of a human is something that occurs along the course of a lifetime – and there’s really nothing to be scared of!
In the same sense, if a child asks how a person died, it might be helpful to explain that there are different reasons why some people get sick or parts of them don’t function as they should, and this can eventually lead their body to stop working altogether.
Discuss the afterlife
This one’s a doozy. But it’s best to be prepared to explain to the kiddos whether there’s anything on the other side, if they happen to pose the question. You’ve got a bit more creative licence here, because not everyone’s answer is going to be the same when it comes to the afterlife. But the best answer is one based on the ideas and values that the child’s family would like to uphold.
You might approach your answer by saying:
- “When people we love die, they watch over us and protect us from a different place.”
- “When someone dies, their soul rejoins the earth and they are able to rest.”
- “Some people think that we go to a paradise when we die, and others think we are reborn. Some even think that nothing happens at all. What do you hope/think?”
When they get a bit older, you can move on to explaining the fun stuff, like writing a Will.