My grandfather died just the way he would have liked to. In the morning, he put up new curtains in his kitchen windows, then rode his bike over to visit his sister. Feeling tired, he lay down for a nap and died in his sleep. While we were sad to lose him, we were glad he hadn’t suffered and had enjoyed his life right to the end.
But for my then eight-year-old son, Dan, hearing that his great-grandfather “died in his sleep” was scary and made him worried that the same thing might happen to him. For months he had trouble falling asleep.
Wendy Froberg, a psychologist and play therapist in Calgary, explains that young children don’t really have much understanding of death. “But by age six, there’s a shift in their thinking. Death stops being this thing that you hear about but don’t apply to yourself, to something that could and will happen to you. Their thinking is also very concrete, though.”
Concrete thinking means they try to connect new concepts — like death — to things in their own experience. If heaven is a place where people go when they die, they imagine it must be like driving to Florida for a vacation, so questions like “Can we go visit Granddad in heaven?” are common. They may ask what people eat when they are dead or want to know if it hurts to be dead.
“It’s very important to be honest, without giving them more information than they want,” Froberg says. “But be careful in your explanations.”
Talking about someone “dying in their sleep” or having a pet “put to sleep” can confuse and scare a child, she points out. In my situation, once I realized what Dan was worrying about, I was able to clarify that my grandfather had been elderly and had a heart condition, and that healthy eight-year-old boys don’t die in their sleep.
Froberg adds that many young children get a distorted view of life from computer games and TV shows. “In computer games, you just get an extra life and start over,” she says. “And the person who was shot on TV might show up on another series tomorrow. People think kids know the difference, but they may need your help in really getting the finality of death.”
Jon Mills, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Ajax, Ont., points out that TV can also be all too real. World news, where brutality, murder and genocide are daily occurrences, can be terrifying,” he explains.
Both Mills and Froberg agree that the biggest challenge for parents helping their child deal with his new awareness of his own mortality can be coping with their own anxiety. We generally find it hard to think about our own death, so it’s not an easy subject to discuss with children. Mills encourages parents to reassure their kids that “death is a natural part of life, it’s the way the world works,” but adds that if this discussion is overlaid with discomfort and anxiety by the parent, the child is likely to feel more worried, not less.
Froberg suggests: “Find out exactly what they want to know, and just answer those questions. Don’t be freaked out if you see your child playing funerals, death scenes, car crashes where everyone dies, or burying and then digging up dolls. This is how children work through their issues and try to come to terms with the concept.”
Other children may not feel ready to deal with death yet and may deny it or refuse to talk about it, even when someone they are close to dies. “You can’t rush these things,” Froberg says. She notes that sometimes a relative will die when a child is five or six and the child doesn’t react much, but a year or two later, when the child understands more about the finality of death, the tears may come.
Parents with religious beliefs about life after death will want to share these with their children — but what if you’re a non-believer? Froberg says that since these beliefs are so prevalent in our culture, it is appropriate to say, “Some people believe…” and share some of the concepts with your children. Mills, however, says he wouldn’t encourage parents to teach children about religious doctrines they don’t believe in. “The non-believing parent can say, ‘We don’t really know what happens when we die but we hope we will be in a good place where we are at peace.’ The honest answer is that we don’t know. Uncertainty is not inherently a bad thing. It is the truth.”
Perhaps the hardest question children ask about death is why. Cynthia Waiz, a mother of four daughters, came up with an answer that satisfied her children. “I said that if we didn’t die, we wouldn’t be able to have children because there wouldn’t be room on the earth for more people. And if I had to choose between living forever, and having them, I would never give up the fun and joy of having them. I think they liked that explanation.”
Remembering those who have died
Psychologist Wendy Froberg says one way to help children accept death as part of life is to remember family members, friends and pets who have died. For example, even though Grandma passed away two years ago, you can celebrate Grandma’s birthday with a special meal and sharing memories. That helps children to understand that while we grieve for those who have died, we can then go on and be happy about the time we had together.