July 14th, 2020
Today there is a miniature schnauzer-sized hole in our lives which had been filled for 14+ years lovingly and (until recently) enthusiastically by our Ellie. She will be very much missed by my husband and I, our children and my family who all experienced her particular brand of devotion. (Even in her last days when she was very wobbly on her pins she would get out of her bed to greet my brother when he came round. He had a lot of love from her during a sad time in his life.) She will also be missed by my 3 year old granddaughter and that raised the question of how to explain death to a young child. Some children will have had the experience of death of a loved one perhaps recently because of Covid-19 or for other reasons. Different circumstances may require different approaches and how you talk to your children about loss will vary according to age and experience of bereavement but one thing will remain the same, we do need to talk about it.
If you practice a faith the conversation you have to explain death may be somewhat scripted for you according to the tenets of your faith about an afterlife. You might talk about your loved pet or relative going to heaven and being at peace there; you may say that they didn’t need their body any more but their soul has been reunited with those who have gone before.
If you don’t practice a religion and don’t believe in an afterlife you need to find other ways to help the child understand and come to terms with what has happened.
You may need to explain death to a young child. They may think death is temporary and reversible and they certainly won’t understand the inevitability of it. They may believe you can bring a pet back to life. Even if they don’t understand about death they will pick up on the feelings around them so may well feel sad or be worried themselves. Admit that you are sad but let them know that you are being cared for and keep them close. They will worry if you are apart from them. Keep routines as consistent as possible.
From about age 6 or 7 children usually understand that death is permanent but this is still a pretty egocentric stage of development so just watch out that your child is not blaming themselves in some way for the death –if only I’d been better behaved/looked after Fido better this wouldn’t have happened. About this age children start to question mortality and may worry that the people they love are going to die. They may become a bit clingier and more watchful if they are worried.
From about age 9 onwards children come to understand that death is inevitable and universal, that even they will die.
Let children take part in farewell rituals like funerals and memorial services. I have no regrets about allowing my children to say goodbye to their grandparents in this way. These rituals assist healing and they celebrate the life of the person or animal who has died. Talk to your child about how the deceased lives on in our memories. My grandfather died 20 years ago but he lives on whenever I use a family expression that originated with him. You could encourage your child to create a memory bank of the departed loved one with drawings, photographs and stories.
How to talk about death
At every age adults should be honest with children and the younger they are the more important it is to use simple clear language, avoiding euphemisms. Since young children think in very concrete ways it will not work to say that the person or animal you are grieving has gone into a deep sleep or passed away or gone on a journey or to a better place. It is better to say simply that they have died. Explain to a young child that this means they won’t see them anymore. Of course you can say that they are at peace. Adults tend to use language like this to try to soften the blow but it can lead to a child being afraid of sleep or journeys. We used to explain to my granddaughter that Ellie didn’t come on walks or even get out of bed much because she was very, very old but if you link death with age there is a possibility that they will get worried about anyone in their lives they think of as old–that could mean you! When explaining how death happens the amount of information you give will depend on age and temperament. Some children are just more curious than others. My son told our granddaughter that Ellie’s body stopped working rather than saying she died of old age.
If your school aged child is worried about those around him dying don’t be tempted to say you’re not going to die. There is a lot of discussion about death at the moment and they may have picked up that young people have died too. Remind them that not everyone who gets sick dies. We all get sick sometimes and mostly recover. All you can do is say that you are healthy (if so) and are doing everything in your power to stay safe and well. Without suggesting that you are about to leave them remind them how many people there are in their lives who love them.
If you are taking care of your own emotions your children will be able to grieve too and become more comfortable. Model your own coping strategies for your older children. Maybe suggest to your tween or teen that they could process their emotions by:
Above all talking about feelings is essential. It is very tempting for adults to want to make children feel better when they’re sad. All our euphemisms about death and our attempts to shield children from death presuppose that children can’t handle difficult feelings. This gives the message that these feelings are to be feared whereas feelings are what make us whole humans. Le them cry and feel free to cry in front of them. Use your words to describe the experience. "I know you're feeling very sad. I'm sad, too. We both loved Ellie, and she loved us, too. We’ll miss her funny little face. Do you remember how she used to run around the house like a mad thing?"
Remember that time heals but acknowledging pain helps the grieving process. Accept it.
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