In one of the Modern Family episodes, we see Gloria and her husband trying to explain to their son Joe Pritchett about death but they, unfortunately, bungled it!
So how do we explain the concept of death to children without causing a scare? Here are a few ways to do it:
1. Help relate death to something they know
The tricky part about explaining death to kids is the permanence of it. Most kids have a hard time getting that concept and it’s what scares them too. To help them take in this information, it’s best to start young and relate the permanence of death to something they know.
For example, a bubble bursting can help you show kids how all things come to an end. Another way is to talk to them about a dead plant at home. Ashleigh Schopen, a Certified Child Life Specialist talked to her 3-year-old about a dead plant and how it cannot take up water and grow in sunlight anymore.
“I told her it’s no longer living and what that meant: It can’t take up water anymore or grow with sunlight. And I made sure to add that it can’t come back again, because the permanence of death is something that young kids have the hardest time understanding,” said Ashleigh Schopen.
Other ways to talk about natural life cycles to kids is to show them a good fruit that has gone bad or talk about a dead bug if both of you happen to come across one.
Kids may not understand death in whole but they pick up messages in movies fast. Movies such as Finding Nemo shows how death can affect a family. Harry Potter movies also touched on the subjects but you may have to explain to them that not all stepparents are mean like The Dursleys. You don’t want to put in more fear!
“The more often you talk about death—and what it means—the less scared and confused your child will be when it happens to a family member,” says Schopen.
2. Avoid sugarcoating
When it comes to talking about death to kids, avoid phrases such as “She’s in a better place” because it can be scary for children. Or you would be explaining more than you should like Gloria and Jay Pritchett!
What parents can do is to talk to the child in an environment where he’s familiar and be honest and concrete about it, even if it sounds cold.
Schopen says parents could say: ‘Grandpa died. When people die, their body stops working and they can’t eat, walk, or play anymore. You won’t be able to see them anymore.’
If kids ask if they could see the person again, parents can explain that when a body stops working, it can never start again.
3. Remind them it’s not their fault
For preschoolers, the world still revolves around them so they may feel like it’s their fault when a death in the family occurs. Kids may think they did something wrong to Grandpa and that’s what caused Grandpa to pass away. It’s important to reassure them that it’s not their fault and no one could stop the death from happening.
4. Maintain a routine
Attending a funeral and visiting a relative’s house may throw the family routine out of sync. As such, try to maintain some of the child’s routine as much as you can so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
If the child keeps asking what happened or when the relative or pet is coming back, they are not looking for a deeper meaning.
“Don’t think that she’s looking for deeper meaning, because she’s not. She needs you to answer the questions consistently, as painful as it is, because it will help her start to grasp the finality of death.” – Dr. Kennedy-Moore
5. Don’t hide your feelings
During this time, you don’t need to hide your feelings from your kids. If they see you crying, tell them why you’re feeling sad such as “I’m feeling sad because I miss Grandpa. I could use a hug.” This gives them something to do and they feel like they could at least help and be useful.
6. Should the kids attend the funeral?
Yes, if the child expresses interest in it but it is understandable if parents wouldn’t bring their child along if the ceremony is too long for a young child. If parents do decide to bring their child to the funeral, prepare them for what the funeral will be like and explain what’s going on as the day progresses.
If there are other helpful ways to talk to children about death, feel free to share them in the comments to help out other parents and families!