How do you explain death to a child?

Posted on August 19, 2014 by J. Chad Pendley under Most Common Questions
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This is a hard question to answer and it is really a personal choice on how you address death with a child.  Since this is a very personal decision I will explain it to you like we do here at the funeral home with the families that we serve in a very general sense.  Unfortunately, this is a common situation and having a few researched facts might be able to help you talk with your child if the situation would arise.  The main reason I want this question to be answered publicly is because of how important this subject is to a child and how this could shape their outlook on life.  Small children see parents and most adults as “all knowing” and how you answer a child who asks you about death could determine how that child perceives death from that point on, that is why this is so critical.  An answer of “I don’t know” or “Try not to think about it” can actually do more harm than you could imagine.

snow-white-asleepWe see children of having a very adolesent mind and a simple view on death and we tend to hide a lot of things from them because “they need to grow up a little more.”  The fact is that children have seen death and started their own opinions on it long before we “think” that they are ready.  Did you know that children see death at least every hour that they watch T.V.?  This research has been done at every age level and even includes cartoons.  Children see death early in life with pets when they die; dead bugs when mommy squashes them; dead animals on the side of the road; in their favorite disney princess movies, etc….  We might not see these things as the same thing but this is what shapes a child’s view on death at an early age.

Children of preschool age already have a formed view on death but most in this age group do not see the finality of death.  Example would be when the cartoon character Roadrunner would fall off a cliff but always seemed to come back to life, or in a video game where the character they are playing dies but yet comes back to life and starts over.  They understand from what they have seen and experienced of what death is but that it is usually all they can see at this point, in their mind it is a temporary part of life and not permanent.

Children of early school years begin to get a more defined view on death.  This can be a hard stage for a child’s understanding of death.  Research has shown that they are starting to see the finality of death but they have no personal concept of death.  This means that they understand death but believe it’s almost mythological, where death wouldn’t happen to them and that they might be able to escape death.  Also at this stage is where a child can personify death with the grim reaper or a skeleton, this is a stage where nightmares could start happening.

Children from school age to early adolescent years really start to get a grasp on the finality of death and that death is irreversible as well as inevitable.  Children at this age will have a lot of deep questions and really start looking into their faith and trying to discover what is the meaning of their life.

When you speak to a child I recommend speaking clear and in a language that the child would understand based on the level that they are in.  Children are very literal at an early age so choose your words wisely.  Telling a child that we “Lost” nana can cause a child to be scared of being apart from their parents and cause separation anxiety and other issues.  Telling a child that “Granny went to sleep” can cause a child to be scared of falling asleep.  Telling a child that “Daddy went to see Jesus” or “God took Daddy” can scare a child and make them fear that God might take them too or they see Jesus as a person who takes their family away.  These words and phrases are what kids associate death with because of their literal translation and this will shape their views on death. Another big problem is that children learn to grieve by how their parents grieve or some significant adult, so if you are having trouble accepting a death and you have children, we strongly recommend looking into getting help before the child’s grief becomes accelerated in the wrong direction.

When I am asked to speak with a child I try to explain it to them very literally by saying that the person has died because their body has stopped working.  We can say that the doctors tried to help his body but it became too broken and it stopped working.  This is a clear wording that a child can see a cause and effect and will help keep their questions to a minimum.  If a child has questions it is imperative to listen and try to answer each question that is asked, unanswered questions might lead to their imagination causing a wrong view.  It is also important to try to get a child to talk about how they are feeling if they are experiencing a death so that you can make sure that they have a clear understanding.

For more information about this please do not hesitate contacting us, there are so many resources out there for this very subject and we can help point you in the right direction for help.  I also believe in bringing a child to a funeral and that sheltering a child from a funeral will cause some of those unanswered questions instead of facing death when it occurs.  Again, this is a very personal choice and I would love to hear your feedback on if you believe that a child should attend a funeral or not attend.  Of course, we all have to raise our own children the best way we know how and I would enjoy reading everyones view on this.  This is another question that we encounter a lot and we will have a blog soon that will be centered around bringing a child to a funeral.

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Chad is a licensed professional and is a native of Cobb County, growing up in Powder Springs and currently living in Marietta Ga. After graduating from McEachern High School Chad attended Gupton Jones College of Funeral Service and graduated as a Master Artist of the Pi Sigma Eta Honorary Mortician Fraternity. He was the recipient of the Bill Pierce award and Daniel E. Buchanan award, recognizing him as a leader in the funeral profession. A member of the Marietta Metro Rotary and different organizations in his profession, Chad also participates in monthly activities promoting the funeral home and networking with other professionals in the area. He is a member and attends Westridge Church in Dallas Ga. He is married to Kristin and as a proud father, Chad enjoys the time he gets to spend with his family. Chad is an avid hunter and a true outdoors man. He has a gift of developing a warm, helpful, and strong relationship with the families he serves and is a valuable source of knowledge at Mayes Ward-Dobbins.

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