Helping your child understand death

With Remembrance Day just gone, I have found that this day has often brought on a conversation in my household about death and dying. I have been surprised at how difficult these topics can be at explaining to children. Questions such as: How does it happen? Where do they go? Why does it happen?

It can be difficult as a parent to know how much or how little to tell a child about this topic. A child’s understanding of death and dying will vary depending on their age, maturity, and personality.

It is important to not reject or avoid any questions that your child raises on the topic by saying things such as, “You’re too little to understand” or “Can we talk about this another day”. If a child asks a question regarding this topic than they have obviously been thinking about it and deserve an answer.

Your answers may vary depending on the age of the child. Children from the ages of 4-6 are very literal in their thinking and need answers which are concrete such as our body stops working and sometimes doctors can’t fix this. They may not grasp the finality of death yet and need to be told that when you die, you can’t come back. Children will often ask at that point where do you go? At this point, you may discuss your own spiritual beliefs such as heaven or you may simply answer that they stay in the cemetery.

With older children, they begin to understand the finality of death and can be given accurate, simple and honest explanations about death. Tiptoeing around the topic only creates more uncertainties for the child. It is ok to tell your child that you may not know all the answers, as no one can be sure of what happens after death but that you will do your best to answer with what you do know.

If you feel that you are unsure on how to answer or would like more information to give your child, a great way of doing so is by borrowing children’s books on death and dying from the library.  Alternatively, if your child has lost somebody close to them and needs support during this time, psychological intervention can help when the time is right.

France Slattery, Clinical Psychologist

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