Talking to Children About Death & Dying

When a death occurs or is about to occur, it’s natural for us as adults to want to protect our children from the pain and details surrounding the situation. Death is a difficult subject to talk about with anyone and talking about it with your children may feel like an especially daunting task. We’re going to break it down into simple terms to help you know the best ways to talk with your children about death and dying.

When thinking about having these conversations with young children, the most important thing to note is that young children are concrete thinkers. What does this mean? Young children think in a very literal way that focuses on their physical world with their five senses: their reality is what they can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. For young children, phrases like “it’s raining cats and dogs” are very confusing. When they hear this, that child may literally think that cats and dogs are falling from the sky!

Because of this, when we talk with children about death and dying, we want to avoid using euphemisms about death that might be confusing to them. We don’t want to share with them that their loved one “kicked the bucket” or “went to sleep forever.” Young children will literally think that their loved one kicked a bucket! And when we tell a child that someone “went to sleep forever,” it can create a lot of anxiety and fear for that child around going to sleep. They may wonder if they will go to sleep and never wake up.

The best way to talk about death and dying with children is to use the words “dead” and “dying.” This can help to eliminate confusion for the youngest grievers and opens the door to help educate the children, as needed. Maybe this is the first time that the child is hearing the words “death” or “dying.” They may not know what they mean. This leaves an opportunity for education. Adults can talk with children about what it means to be alive in concrete language that they’ll understand: the heart beats, the lungs breathe, the eyes see, the body moves, and the brain thinks. And you can contrast those things with what it means to be dead: your body no longer works, your blood no longer pumps, your brain no longer thinks, etc.

An especially confusing part of death for children is grasping the abstract concept of what happens to the soul or spirit after the body dies. There are many different things that families believe. If your family belief is that your loved one has gone to Heaven, then you want to be certain to separate the spirit/soul from the physical body. Meaning that the physical body has stopped functioning, and the spirit or soul has separated from the body and gone to Heaven. The next challenge for the concrete thinker is that they will likely believe that Heaven is a place you can go to and come back from because their world is full of so many physical places where they can do so. And it is very natural for children to ask repeatedly about when their person is coming back because the spirit or soul leaving the body and going to Heaven, a place you cannot come back from, is different than going to work or to the grocery store. Some kids might literally think that the cemetery is Heaven, because they know that their person died and went to Heaven, and they know that their person is buried at the cemetery. So, a concrete thinker could conclude that Heaven is the cemetery.

We also want to bring into consideration a child’s development when we talk about causes of death with them. At SandCastles, we use the “3 Very” method of talking with children about causes of death. When someone dies, they die because they were very, very, very old, they die because they were very, very, very sick, or they die because they were very, very, very hurt. We always advise using all three verys, even if it sounds redundant.

In using all three, you’re helping to differentiate levels of old, sick, and hurt for a child. It’s completely normal for a child to feel anxious after a death and to experience fears of dying themselves, or fears of another of their loved ones dying. When you use the three verys to describe causes of death with your children, it can help them to feel less fear when they get hurt or sick. They can better understand the severity of death when we can reassure them that their scraped knee is just “a little bit hurt” and not “very, very, very hurt,” or that their stuffy nose and sore throat is just “a little bit sick” and not “very, very, very sick.”

These conversations are not easy. Rest assured knowing that being honest and open with your children will help them to make sense of what has happened and to continue to lean on you in their grief as someone they can trust. If you ever need support in talking with your children about the death of a loved one, please feel free to reach out to us at SandCastles. We are here to support you and your family.

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