If we are born, we must die, but that doesn’t make either of those easy. Death, although a natural consequence to life, is so much more than just the physical components of the body dying. People’s lives impact us and if we are old enough to love, we are old enough to grieve. When we love and lose, we grieve that loss.
In grief, helping children understand the meaning of death can have an added complexity. Thinking about the physical aspects of life is a good place to start. Younger children understand the concrete aspects of life—what they can see, feel, hear, touch, and taste. Babies put everything in their mouths to learn about the world around them. When we want to teach little learners about death, we start with life:
What makes you alive? I am alive because I can breathe, my lungs inhale and exhale the air around me (demonstrate that if you are talking with a child). My heart is beating in my chest (show them how to feel their pulse or listen to a heartbeat). I can see, feel, think, and love. These things let me know that I am alive. This is especially true in comparison to an object like a rock. It can’t do any of that.
What does it mean to be dead? A person dies when all those bodily functions stop working. They cannot see, hear, feel, touch or taste. Their heart does not beat. Their lungs are not breathing the air around them. The body has died.
If you have a spiritual belief about what happens when someone dies, now is the time to teach that aspect. The body has died, but the soul/spirit, which made them who they were, has left the body and gone to heaven. Heaven, to a concrete 5-year-old, can be a confusing concept. Because with their thinking…my loved one died and went to heaven. They see heaven as a place they can go and come back from, like the grocery store or work. Explaining death with the body and the spirit can help them to understand why the body is buried at the cemetery, and their spirit is somewhere else, like heaven.
At SandCastles, we teach families to talk with their children about the cause of death in one of three ways:
- They were very, very, very sick—the body has a sickness that is so bad, that it can’t fight it off and the doctors couldn’t make it go away.
- They were very, very, very hurt—the body is so hurt that it cannot recover and go back to normal to live.
- They were very, very, very old—the body has lived so very long, that is has been worn out and is just naturally shutting down.
It is very, very, very important to include all the word “very” three times, because that will help to reduce fear. Saying the word “very” three times helps to differentiate when a child has a simple paper cut and is “hurt” from being so very, very, very hurt that your body doesn’t work anymore.
You may have noticed that we also use the word “dead.” We consider this to be the best word to use, as it is less likely to be misinterpreted. Though there are many euphemisms to describe death and dying, we refrain from using abstract language with children. Do not use phrases like “they went to sleep forever,” with the concrete thinkers, as they will be scared to go to sleep at night. Do not tell a child that someone has “expired,” as they will confuse that with the milk that expired in the fridge that has to be thrown out. That said, “dead” can be confusing too, as your character can “die” in video games, yet comes back to life with a push of a button. Even still, using the word “dead” when teaching children about a loss is the best, most concrete language to use.
Explaining death to children in simple and clear, age appropriate language is a key element to their development. It is helpful to be able to start these conversations before a significant death occurs, so they can start their understanding. Perhaps when you see a dead bird on a walk, it is a good time to start teaching and explaining. It will take little ones time to grasp these concepts, and learning is a part of their grief process. Tell the truth, trust the process, be patient and answer their questions as best you can. If they ask something you can’t answer, be honest and tell them you will find out the answer and get back to them. Know also, if you have any questions, we are here to help.
Call us at Henry Ford SandCastles at (313) 771-7005 or email us at SandCastles@hfhs.org.