In most families, parents don't think about explaining death to their children until a relative dies.
In the past, when people were born and died at home, death was a natural part of everyday life and children took part in that event with everybody else.
Today it is important to be aware that an understanding of death does not enter a child's picture of the world by itself. Children have to be told about death. It will make sorrow and death much easier for a child to deal with if they know something about it beforehand.
When someone in a family dies, many parents will attempt to protect their children by not talking about sorrow or death. This is a misguided kind of protection. Sooner or later, the child will be confronted with the subject. If a child has some understanding of the meaning of the word 'death', they will be better equipped to deal with the situation.
If a child has been protected against sorrow, they will still react when they realise what has happened. Nobody can avoid grief, only postpone it. Often, trying to protect a child will only cause them unnecessary anxiety and perhaps even guilt.
It may not be possible for a parent to talk to a child about death when someone in the family dies, because that parent is so upset. It would be beneficial for the whole family if the child had been prepared before the actual death.
Children can be taught that death is a part of life by their parents preparing them when a death in the family is expected. They can talk about it before they, and their parents, are grief stricken. Children do not need protection; they need competent guidance and satisfactory answers to their questions.
The development and age of the child needs to be borne in mind. The parent or guardian knows how the child likes like to talk about things, the sort of language they can use and if there are other ways they like to communicate, through drawing for example.
Children less than eight years of age are often interested in death and have complex concepts about it but are not able to grasp its finality. They, and many adults, have magical beliefs about how life can carry on after death or how many people come back to life. The understanding that this is not the case only comes with greater maturity and then will be affected by the cultural and spiritual beliefs of the child's family and community.
By making this preparation a part of everyday life, death will be a natural thing for a child. Flowers that wither and die, or a pet that dies, may provide an opening. It is possible to talk about elderly people whom the child knows and talk about yourselves getting old and dying. The library can provide a list of children's books on the subject. Reading books together, and talking afterwards about the feelings they arouse, is a good way of starting to talk about death.
Children ask questions in a very direct way. They may not talk about feelings as much as about more concrete circumstances. Maybe they will ask what a coffin looks like on the inside, whether lying in the ground is scary and lonely or whether it is cold and dark down there. It is important to be prepared for these questions. If they make the parent uncomfortable, the child will notice and stop asking questions. A child will watch to see whether they are allowed these kinds of questions and the reaction they create.
Remember children do not sit down and discuss a subject for hours on end. They will come running and ask some of the hardest questions in the world. That offers little time to think answers through. After a couple of minutes, they might want to go back outside to play. Seizing the moment is important. Talk about the subject when they want to. It is natural for them to change the subject and then return to it later.
When telling a child that someone has died, make sure the word 'died' is used. Children do not understand euphemisms. Some children have waited years for a grandparent to return because they had been told he or she had 'passed away.' Euphemisms may help an adult feel better but they won't help a child understand what has happened.
When mourning, let a child know it. The parent should let him or her see they are truly sad. If grief is hidden, the child will think that grief is not an acceptable feeling.
A funeral is a ceremony that helps people accept death. The child is a part of the family and it is only natural that they take part in the funeral along with everybody else. Prepare them for what might happen at the funeral. Tell them exactly what is going to take place and why. Tell them that some of the mourners may cry.
If a parent's own grief prevents them from talking to the child and preparing them for the funeral, another close relative or friend can do it.
Whether or not to take part in the funeral should be the child's choice. It is not something a parent should force a child to do. If they don't want to go, ask them why not and let them talk about their feelings.
The basic questions about life and death demand honest answers.
Listen carefully when a child asks a question. Make sure you understand what they want to know. Answer the question.
If your child asks 'Am I going to die?' tell them that they will, but not for a long time. If a child asks whether a parent is going to die, they should be told that all people die eventually, but that their parent will not die for a long time.
A child may ask a question that a parent cannot answer. It is honest and OK to say 'I don't know'.
It is always good for everybody to remember their loved one who has died. Through memories, the person is kept alive in our minds. It is helpful to leave a photo album out for the child to look at their pictures whenever they like.
Help children hold on to happy memories of the person who died. Say 'Do you remember?' or 'That was how he wanted it' or 'This was her favourite food'. A child will know that it is good to remember.