Children Understand Death
by Karen Nilsen
STAR Class Founder for Funeralplan.com
The days surrounding a death can be a confusing and disorienting
time for young children. Altered daily routines and unfamiliar
sights and sounds can be difficult for them to understand and cope
with. Children notice even the most subtle changes in their
routines and surroundings. We must validate their feelings and
encourage them to share their thoughts, fears, and observations of
the events taking place around them.
Most important, I believe, is to first find out what your child
already knows about death, then what they think they know,
and then provide the facts in simple, honest, terms.
Explaining death to children is similar to talking to kids about
sex, except that many parents find death a more difficult topic. We
often use euphemisms such as "passed away" "Grandpa is sleeping,"
or "we lost Grandma" instead of the words "dead" and "died." These
softened explanations can cause fears in a young child that they
too may get lost or go down for a nap and never wake up. Or worse
yet, as 4-year-old Clayton asked, "What if I go to sleep and wake
up in a casket like my Grandpa?"
Children see the evidence that livings things die in many areas
of their lives. They see and hear about it on the television, in
movies--even cartoons, and on an ordinary walk in the park or to
school, e.g., : a dead bird, a squirrel, or other small animal.
They notice the change of the seasons as plants and trees appear to
wither and die.
They may have experienced the death of a pet. It's hard not to
notice the difference between a live goldfish and one floating
motionless on the top of the fish bowl. Death causes changes in a
living thing. Very young children may not be able to fully
comprehend the complexities, but they are aware that death looks
and feels different.
If possible, begin a dialogue with your child about how all
living things on this earth will die someday. Death is a reality;
we can't hide it from our children. It is the circle of life. If
the situation arises where a plant, pet or animal dies, allow the
child to investigate it, see it, touch it, even smell it.
With an accepting adult standing close by or holding a child
while he/she discovers death on the sidewalk, children often adopt
the attitude and the emotion of the adult. Talk about feelings.
Share your feelings with your child. Tell him that when someone or
something dies, we might feel sad, mad, or confused. And sometimes
we might even cry--and that's okay.
Explain the difference between an "alive" bird and a dead one.
When the bird was alive, he could fly, and sing, and eat worms, but
now, his body has died. It doesn't work anymore. He cannot see, or
hear, or move. His body is dead. You may even hold a "funeral
ceremony" for the animal. Explain that a funeral is a time to say
good-bye. It is a Special Time to Always Remember.
Another readily available example in a child's world is a simple
flower. You can show the child a living flower. Point out its
qualities of life--e.g., vibrant color, soft velvety petals, strong
sturdy stem and enjoyable fragrance. If you want, you may even
discuss the flower's purpose here on earth. It brings us joy,
brightens a room, provides food for insects and bees, etc. Then
show the child a flower that has died. Compare its qualities to the
living flower. The flower has changed. Allow the child
touch and smell the flower.
When talking to a child about the death of a family member or
friend, remind them that like the flower, or bird, or pet, the body
of their loved one has changed. It cannot see, or hear, or move.
Look through photo albums, talk about special memories and their
relationship with the deceased.
Read books available for children. Acknowledge your child's
feelings. Reassure them that sad and mad feelings are normal and
okay. Allow them to attend the funeral or memorial service for
their special person. Encourage them to write a letter or draw a
picture that can be placed in the casket or displayed near the
You may want to talk about your family's faith tradition. Heaven
is another concept which is a life long learning process.
Death IS a frightening concept for all of us. But, with loving
explanations, acceptance of feelings and an opportunity to express
those feelings, a child can begin to understand that death is a
part of life.