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.