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Parenting – Explaining Death to Children

Explaining death to children is never simple, but these tips from Dr Sasha Lynn will make it a little easier.

It’s not an easy topic at the best of times, but explaining death to children is tough.

At some stage, our children will come into contact with dying or death in one way or another. From just watching TV or movies, to ants being squashed, beloved family pets passing away, or relatives dying, children will be exposed to death.

Death is a natural part of life.

And that’s one big factor we need to keep in mind when explaining death to children. However, while it is a natural thing, talking about it with our children can feel quite the opposite!

Often we can worry that children won’t understand, so we don’t want to burden them with what we might see as ‘unnecessary’ information. At times though, we don’t give kids enough credit. They pick up more than what we know, and understand more than what we think.

How do we explain death and dying to our kids?

How can we help them understand, and us feel ok about it too?

Some tips to help talk about dying/death with kids are:

  • First and foremost, helping yourself to feel ok about discussing the topic with kids. Death is often seen as a taboo topic, and we can feel uncomfortable having to bring such things up. Write down what you need to say, or just rehearse a few things in your mind, so that you at least feel prepared.
  • If there has been a death that the children are aware of, it’s best to talk with them sooner rather than later about it. Best they hear it from you than second, or third-hand.
  • Ask them what they know about death. What have they heard? What do they think happens?
  • Pitch to their developmental level. Younger kids tend to think death is a reversible thing and don’t quite get the full extent of it, kids aged 5-9 are concrete thinkers, but start to get the gist that death is permanent though they may not necessarily associate it with occurring to themselves, and older kids have a full grasp that death is permanent, and that they will die one day too. Try to explain at the level you feel is most appropriate for your child.
  • Be as honest as appropriate with them. I.e. ‘when we die, our bodies no longer work, our heart stops beating. We can no longer see or touch people who have died’. • Try to use the words ‘death’ and ‘dead’ as opposed to ‘gone to sleep’ to avoid confusion. And to avoid fear about falling asleep!
  • Repetition is ok. Sometimes it takes a few rounds of the same conversation to help them process and understand.
  • If you don’t know the answer to their question at that point, it’s totally fine to say ‘I don’t have the answer to that right now’
  • Normalise feelings of confusion, hurt, or sadness around death. Our children need to know that we all feel like that.
  • It’s ok for children to see us show our emotions about death too. It can help normalise their feelings, and we can explain our emotional process to them so that they understand further.
  • If they have had any previous experience with death (i.e. death of a pet, death of a plant etc) try to link it back to that, so they can have something concrete to base the idea on.
  • Reassure them that they are safe, they are loved and looked after. Sometimes kids can worry that everyone will die around them at the drop of a hat. Or that they might die themselves.

When it’s just something they’ve seen or heard about, a simple explanation can suffice. However, if someone close dies, then they may also churn through the rollercoaster that is grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that we go through stages of grief, and this is a great starting point to help both yourself, and your child understand their feelings. We can help our children understand that there are many emotions that can come with death, and sometimes we might feel like we’re moving forward, other times we might feel like we’ve taken a step back, but it is all part of the process. There’s no straightforward path through death and grief, and we all tackle it differently. But by being as open and as honest as we can appropriately be, we can help remove the taboo around death with our children.

This article was created for Families Magazine – Gold Coast’s August/September 2016 Issue

Dr Sasha Lynn

Dr. Sasha Lynn BPsych(Hons), DClinPsych, MAPS, MCCP is a Writer, Clinical Psychologist, Academic and Mum. Want to read more? You can find her over at her blog ‘From The Left Field’ where she describes herself as “Dr. Phil’s alter-ego. With hair.”

Photo of author

Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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