HOW TO TALK TO CHILDREN ABOUT DEATH

General guidelines:

Answer simply and truthfully.
Children will probably know in some way when they are not being told the truth. What they imagine to fill in the details is often worse than the reality.

Listen to questions closely. 
As adults we often project our own anxieties onto our children’s questions. When a four year old asks, “Where is Daddy?” they may only want to know the whereabouts of the body and how it got there. They may not be asking the metaphysical question about an afterlife. Ask follow up questions to make sure you know what they are asking and why they are asking it. In other words what made them ask the question.

Only answer what has been asked.
Answer simply and truthfully, but don’t offer more than is needed. If the child wants more they will ask more questions. When children ask a question about feelings, focus on emotional answers and support. When their questions are factual, focus on informative answers.

Pay attention to their body language.
If they seem antsy, it may mean it is time to end the conversation. They will return to it if they need more as long as they know it is an allowed topic for conversation.

Answer these questions in an open atmosphere.
Use familiar expressions of comfort such as touches, hugs, smiles, and a loving tone of voice. Children need to know that what you’re saying or describing, no matter how difficult , is okay to talk about. Adults do not need to have all the answers but children do need to know that they will listened to.

Balance your own emotions.
For children to be able to hear the whole message, a warm and open approach is helpful. If you’re too emotional, they can’t understand the words. On the other hand, if you show no emotion, the words may seem too harsh.

Balance your own needs/abilities with what the children need.
It’s okay to say “I can’t talk about this right now” when you feel overwhelmed by the situation or need time to put your own thoughts together about how you want to explain things to your child. Children have a knack for asking questions at those moments when you least expect it. Better to postpone the conversation than to give an answer you may regret later. But it is critical to make sure that you do return to the conversation. It is important to remember that within a family each person may be in a different place and express themselves in a different way.

Possible questions:

What does dead mean?
In simple terms explain the physical process of death. The heart doesn’t beat, the lungs don’t breath, the persons doesn’t have to eat or go to the bathroom. Their body stops working completely. They don’t feel any pain.

Did I make it happen ?
This is a question which needs to be answered directly and clearly. Children will sometimes assume that their wish or words or thoughts caused this bad thing to happen (magical thinking). We need to unburden them of this concern, while acknowledging that we have heard it. Try not to dismiss the question. Avoid saying things like “don’t be silly” or “that’s crazy”. Rather “ I understand why you might think that but you absolutely did nothing to make this happen.”

What happened to the body?
Be as simple and truthful as possible. Use the correct terminology including casket, funeral, cemetery, cremation, burial, ashes

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