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How to Explain Death to a Child

by John M. Stuart, MSW

Image of a child's hands

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

A young mind will likely ask why someone she loves is no longer with her. How do we explain death to a child? Here are several ways to engage children in difficult conversations when a loved one has died.

How does a child understand death?

Children develop at individual rates. While some children may try to make sense of the loss, it’s difficult for anyone – adults included – to make sense of death. Hospicenet.org provides an outline on “Children’s Understanding of Death.”

It may be helpful to begin a conversation with a child's conceptual understanding of death instead of one’s own. Asking questions allows a child to express fears, curiosities and current beliefs. This provides pertinent information on how to proceed with the conversation.

To gain a comprehensive understanding of how a child experiences death, it’s helpful to observe the child during the time of loss. Be attentive to displays of uncharacteristic non-verbal behaviors and to drawings or stories the child may create. Use these as cues to develop an ongoing dialogue with the child.

What do I tell a child about death?

Greg Adams, LCSW, Director of the Center for Good Mourning at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, believes that spiritual beliefs about the afterlife can be introduced too early. Telling a child that grandma is watching over them from heaven can be frightening depending on the child’s level of understanding. A more comforting thought might be, "Even though grandma is gone, the love we feel for her will stay with us forever.”

Child development experts agree that sugarcoating death with euphemisms believed to be more palatable can often do more emotional harm than good. Telling a child that grandma has gone to sleep can instill fears about going to sleep. They also suggest that when discussing death, offer simple explanations such as: "Today grandma died. Her body stopped working. She can no longer breathe or eat.”

Don't hide death

While it may be scary for children to see a loved one dying in the hospital or at home, allowing them to witness the process can help them learn to accept death as a part of life. When a child sees and hears sadness expressed, the verbalized emotion lets her know its "normal" to feel and express sadness when someone close to us dies. This will also help her to develop healthy coping skills later in life.

Including children in the planning of a memorial celebration can provide comfort and hopefully a sense of healing. If cremation has been chosen, we might invite a child to write or draw on an appropriate urn or vault. We might also ask for their valued input in selecting a special place to scatter or bury the cremains in a biodegradable urn at sea or in the ground. If we're displaying the memorial urn in the children's home, we want to make sure they are comfortable with this choice.

Make use of available resources

The Moyer Foundation was founded by major league baseball player Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen. One of the aims of this non-profit is to assist children in their healing journey when a loved one dies. The foundation sponsors bereavement camps and other related activities around the country. These camps provide opportunities for bereaved children to come together. The supportive environment gives them assurances they are not alone in the healing journey. Activities are centered on developing skills to constructively cope with loss. The Memory Board Project allows children to post cherished pictures and memories on such social media sites as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Close family members are irreplaceable resources in supporting a child through this difficult life event. Other resources such as counseling, bereavement camps and books written for specific age groups provide additional support. Children are resilient. Being honest, and normalizing fear and sadness are a few ways that can help support a child when someone has died. It is often difficult even for an adult to understand and explain a profound loss, especially when working through his or her own grief.

 

John Michael Stuart, MSW has been a social worker since 1997. He has worked in nursing home, hospice and home health settings, including one of the nation's largest Social HMO demonstration projects where he coordinated care between physicians, patients and their families. John has had cerebral palsy since birth and has authored Perfect Circles, Redefining  Perfection. He is also a public speaker and currently works as a home health social worker in Las Vegas. 

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