How to explain death to a child

There can be a lot of fear in discussing death with kids, but they can cope if they’re told the truth in an age-appropriate way.

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There can be a lot of fear in discussing death with kids: What should we say? How will they react? Kids can cope if they’re told the truth in an age-appropriate way, says Candace Ray, director of the Lighthouse for Grieving Children, a bereavement support organization in Oakville, Ont. But it needs to be described in simple terms. “Kids are very concrete in their thinking,” Ray says, “so euphemisms that soften the news for the rest of us make it very confusing for them.”

Try to be as clear and concise as possible. If someone has a disease like cancer, for instance, it’s important to give it a name. (Otherwise, any time anyone gets sick, a child might believe that person, too, is going to die.) Reassure kids that most people live a pretty long life, but that sometimes a person is so badly hurt or so very sick that their body stops working.

Ray suggests saying something like, “Grandma has cancer, which is a sickness that makes parts of the body too unwell to work anymore. And when certain parts of the body stop working, then the person dies. And that means their body doesn’t work anymore, they don’t feel pain, they’re not hungry, they can’t see, they can’t hear, they don’t feel and they don’t come back.” And since many young kids think of the body as being from the neck down, be clear you mean the entire body, says grief therapist Andrea Warnick. “I’ve worked with kids who imagined a headless body—that’s how concrete they can be in their thinking.”

In the case of a death from suicide, the same principle applies, says Ray. “Keep it simple: ‘Mom felt very sad and hopeless, and sometimes when people feel sad and hopeless, they do something to their body to make it stop working, and they die.’” Sad child looking out a window
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Children may start to worry about who might else might die. Don’t promise that you’ll never die; instead remind them that you want to be there and you plan to be there to take care of them, and that there will always be someone to love and care for them.

Answer questions as they come up—and there may be an awful lot, from how the person died to the spiritual aspects of death. Be careful to use age-appropriate language and to not overwhelm them with too much information at once. Remember, this is a topic that you can return to again and again. And it’s OK if you don’t know all the answers. Part of being honest about death is being upfront about what we don’t know. Often, kids’ concerns fall into what counsellors call the 4Cs: Did I cause it? Can I catch it? Could I have cured it? Who is going to take care of me? “Reassure your child that this isn’t anybody’s fault,” says Warnick. “They’re going to need a lot of support and reassurance.”

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