Explaining Death

Laura's Dad5In Laura’s Story, Part 4, Christine shared her memory of the death of her dad.  I imagine the caregiving aspect for her sister, Laura, presented new challenges with the passing of their dad. I look forward to the next segment and learning how they all coped.

I was touched by Christine’s words, “Our adversities don’t define us unless we let them, but experiencing the death of a parent when you’re in your childhood changes your life. You learn the world isn’t a safe place and death is very real and can strike at any moment.”

Although Laura was twelve years old when her father died, her disability made it hard for her to understand death or “going to heaven,” which is what her mom told her every time she asked where daddy was.

The death of any loved one is hard and the recovering process takes time. I remember clearly my first experience coping with the sudden death of an aunt when I was a child. Our capacity to understand death varies depending on age and abilities.

I found an excellent article, http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html#, which describes a child’s capacity to understand death and their possible response to it by age. My summary of the article is as follows:

Before five or six years old, their view of the world is very literal. Therefore, explain death in basic and concrete terms such as the person’s body wasn’t working anymore and the doctors couldn’t fix it. If the death was a result of an accident, you might explain what happened and because of this very sad event, the person’s body stopped working. You may have to explain that “death” means that the body stopped working.

Young children have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die and they won’t be coming back. Even after you’ve explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. It’s important to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can’t come back.

The article suggested avoiding the use of euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved one “went away” or “went to sleep” or even that your family “lost” the person. Because young children think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.

From age six to ten a child can start to grasp the finality of death, however, they don’t understand that it will happen to every living thing one day. Often, kids this age personalize death and think of it as the “boogeyman” or a ghost or a skeleton. They deal best with death when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened.

As children mature into teens, they start to understand that every human being eventually dies, regardless of grades, behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do. Questions may naturally come up about mortality and vulnerability. For example, a sixteen-year-old’s friend dies in a car accident and a teen might now be reluctant to get behind the wheel or even ride in a car. The best way to respond is to empathize about how frightening and sad this accident was. It may also be a good time to remind your teen about ways to stay safe and healthy, like never getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking and always wearing a seatbelt.

Teens also tend to search more for meaning in the death of someone close to them. A teen who asks why someone had to die probably isn’t looking for literal answers, but starting to explore the idea of the meaning of life. They may experience some guilt, particularly if one of their peers died. It’s best to encourage them to share their grief with you or another trusted, empathetic family member or friend.

A young child might not cry, but react to the news by acting out or becoming hyperactive. A teen might act annoyed and may feel more comfortable confiding in peers. Whatever their reaction, don’t take it personally.

Learning how to deal with grief is like coping with other physical, mental, and emotional matters — it’s a process.

For more information on this topic see http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html#

Related Article: Twelve Things I’ve Learned About Grief 

Thanks for reading. I look forward to seeing your thoughts and/or experiences with explaining death to a child in the comment box below. Sharing what has or hasn’t worked for you could help another person on their pathway through grief.

2 thoughts on “Explaining Death

  1. It’s been 2.5 years for me and our girls were 8 and 11 when their Dad died in a motorbike accident. When the police knocked at our door they were in their rooms but knew instinctively that something was very wrong from the noise I made. The police sent them back to their rooms saying they needed to talk to me and that I would see them soon. I can’t remember how much time passed but that’s something I will always regret – the questions and the fear they must have experienced during that time.

    When I summoned the courage to go to their room, I obviously was very numb. But I do remember that I was very matter of fact and honest with them. I explained that Daddy was in an accident, it was bad and that his body was very badly damaged. That he died instantly and he wasn’t coming home. Based on their ages they both understood what I had said. There was no question. They knew what it meant to die. They knew he wasn’t coming back. Our eleven year old was very quiet. Our eight year old, in that moment was more like me than I thought – she fired questions at me. When can we see him. Can we bring the bike home. Can we go to where the accident happened. It’s a terrible lesson in growing up way too quickly. But I truly believe that the only way is to be completely honest with the child.

    They both wanted to see him and I couldn’t deny that. I prepared them both before we went in, explaining that he had cuts and bruising on his face, because his helmet had in fact done it’s job. They took letters, photos and trinkets in with them to place in the coffin with him. I haven’t regretted for a single moment being completely honest with them and allowing them to see their Dad’s body. But I think the key to doing this is to prepare them as much as possible before you go in. I was 36 years old and seeing a dead body for the first time, they were 8 and 11. Telling them as much as possible and explaining everything before going in is so very important. Given the relationship I think seeing him was key in the “believing” process. We do everything we can in life to protect our children. But in this instance who was I to deny them what they wanted in seeing their Dad. Eventually they also saw the bike too and the accident site. I think in order to completely understand they needed all the facts that were available, much the same as I did.

    • Thank you for your honesty and for sharing such difficult memories. Great advice from someone who has been through it! Going back to the accident site and the home we were planning to buy was helpful for me and my grief recovery as well. I appreciate your words of wisdom. Best wishes to you!

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