If adults have their own coping mechanism when it comes to understanding death, children have very different reactions to such tragic events. The reactions depend on many factors, from the child’s age, to whether or not he or she had to deal with death before, to the relationship they had with the person who died and how the people around them talk to them about death. If most of these factors can’t be changed, the way you talk to children dealing with death can shape a lot of their experience and how they end up understanding death. Which is why today’s guide is focused on what adults can do to help children understand death.

Children Understanding Death: What Can You Do to Help?

Answer Their Questions

Avoiding to give a straight answer to a question related to death can make the process of understanding death even more difficult. Children are naturally curious, so they might ask you questions about death even if they haven’t necessarily experienced it. In fact, this is a much more appropriate setting to introduce them to the concept of death and talk about their curiosities. Doing that after they’ve just lost someone they love can be rather difficult. Although it’s best not to go into too many details, lying about death related issues is only going to make matters worse when your child finds out the truth. So try to be as honest as possible, and keep your answers brief and easy to understand.

Listen to Them

No matter what kind of reaction your child has to death, it’s important to listen to him or her. It doesn’t matter if you’re going through tough times as well. Don’t minimize the pain your child might be feeling. Listen to whatever he or she has to say, regardless of whether it involves questions, stories, crying, or no particular reaction at all. Children react to death in many ways, and you have to be there for them no matter what happens.

Express Emotions

A lot of people try to pretend they’re fine in front of their children, so as not to worry or scare them. You should, indeed, limit the expressions of your grief. However, you shouldn’t pretend like everything is back to normal after the death of someone both you and your child cared about. Children will feel better about their own emotions if they see that you have similar ones as well. Understanding death and its subsequent grief is not an easy task for a child. So make sure that he or she knows that it’s perfectly fine to express sadness when someone you lost is no longer with you.

sad little girl hugging her mother

Explain the Changes

Sometimes, when a family member dies, that can entail certain changes in your child’s day to day life. For instance, if their grandfather dies, and he was the one who usually picked up your child from school, make sure they know that someone else will be there to do that. Understanding death can be confusing for a child, especially a younger one who is not at all familiar with the concept. Which is why you should be very patient and explain any changes that might occur. Moreover, always find an alternative to them. That way, your child won’t feel like he or she is losing something important in their life.

Don’t Use Euphemisms

We’re all tempted to make death seem less threatening by using euphemisms such as “resting in peace”. However, such euphemisms that don’t make perfectly clear that a person is not coming back can make the process of understanding death even more confusing for a child. If you use them when explaining death to a child, he or she might still hope for the return of that person, or even think that they’re in danger of dying as well whenever they go to sleep. Instead of euphemisms, use simple phrases such as “Grandma’s body wasn’t able to function anymore, because she was very old”.

Explain Funeral Rituals

One of the ways in which your child can understand death better is by attending the funeral and all the subsequent rituals that you decide to do after someone dies. However, if this is the first time he or she sees a funeral, it’s extremely important to explain what’s going to happen beforehand. Tell your child that people will gather to pray together, sing, and remember the loved one who passed. Inform him or her that people are going to offer their condolences and even cry. Also, explain that all these reactions are normal.

Regarding the memorial service, it’s good to put a positive spin on it. Consequently, explain that people will eventually feel better and choose to gather somewhere so that they can be with each other and remember the person who died and the happy memories they have of him or her.

Don’t Avoid the Topic

How your child deals with understanding death is only one of the things that should concern you after the loss of a loved one. The second one is what happens after the actual funeral, in the days, weeks, and even months to come. The most important thing to remember is not to avoid the topic of death or talking about the person who died. It’s normal for your child to miss that person and want to talk about him or her. Which is why you should also mention happy memories of the deceased, since they might help you all feel better.

You could also encourage your child to remember that person and commemorate their life. They can do that by writing something about them or drawing a picture. Sometimes, that’s an easier way for children to express their emotions than talking about the topic.

child looking sad and writing something in a notebook

Summing It All Up

No matter how old your child is, whenever you’re confronted with the task of helping him or her understand death, you have to be really careful about how you guide them through the process. However, as long as you remember to be as honest and open to emotions as possible, and you take the time to answer any questions your child might have and explain everything they should expect, there’s no reason why he or she can’t form a proper understanding of death.

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