Discussing death and dying with children can be a very difficult job. It is because as we grow older and
hopefully mature in our own thought processes and develop healthier attitudes and mentalities towards death and dying we tend
to forget our younger thoughts, images and understandings of death and dying.
The Apostle Paul writes in a passage of scripture; When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think
as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.(I Corinthians 13:11 - New American
Standard Bible) As important as it is to grow up, sometimes what he describes in this passage is just the problem. We tend
to do away with the "things" that connect us to children in their language and understandings.
In order to communicate effectively to children and teenagers on such subjects as death, dying, grief and
loss, it is vitally important to "re-learn" their language and thought processes. As caregivers, we tend to ignore children
and teenagers because of these communication gaps and barriers. Sometimes it is because it takes a certain amount of time
to "gear down" and we are in to much of a hurry to help the older adults that we seem to be on the same level as. Other times
it is just because we arent totally comfortable with our own mentalities of death and dying and because kids can tend to come
across fairly transparent in their discussions, we fear exposing our own inability to deal with or discuss the subject.
What we so easily forget is that children grieve also there are no "magic" or "right" words to say to them.
We all wish there were. Young children learn most of their major thought patterns in the first five years of their life. They
are very impressionable. Their psychology forms very easily and they are very vulnerable to first impressions. So how we react
to them in these critical areas of life will contribute to the formation of their attitudes and perceptions for most of their
life. In many cases, very little can be done to erase incorrect foundations formed by observing improper behavior or reactions
by the adults around them.
Many parents cant deal with the occurrences of death in and around their own life, so they are basically
ineffective in helping their own children deal with death issues. Many times parents or other adults that the child respects
will use phrases like "We just have to go on with life now" or "You need to grow up and act responsibly about what has happened".
Those statements arent necessarily wrong in content, but they are not complete in the care giving context of the situation
of death and dying. They inhibit the childs ability to express their pain and grief over the loss that has occurred.
Many times a child will come into a knowledge of how to deal with death by watching a friend or a peer cope
with a death. This is especially notable when observing the reactions of junior high students and early high school students.
This fact stresses the need for earlier childhood environments and conversations that create healthier mentalities about death
and dying. This will help them become examples of right mentalities rather than creating unrealistic attitudes and thoughts
about what death and grief should be experienced to their peers.
Unfortunately, many parents and peers are dealing with the thoughts and circumstances of a very complex grieving
system created by the experiencing of many losses that are being dealt with at various levels of severity. Sorting through
those issues as a child is virtually impossible. That is exactly why we need to be even more alert to childrens questions
and thoughts regarding death and dying, and even loss in general. If a child asks questions or makes descriptive comments
about death and dying, the worst thing an adult or peer can do is to not respond or to give an answer that encourages the
child to ignore their thoughts and feelings.
The death of a loved one or even a pet, is often times a major "line in the sand" in a child or teens personal
history. That pain grips them even tighter because of the inability to know how to express themselves to the one who has died
or show them their feelings. This loss cries out to be expressed in some shape or manner. We as caregivers need to be sensitive
to this and provide an outlet for them and creative ways for them to experience and learn healthy thought processes about
death dying and grief.
Correlating Age to Understanding
One way to develop skills in this area of communication is to correlate their age to their general understanding
of life and the world around them. We will look at these five age categories very generally. Please understand that various
children and teenagers will grow, mature and comprehend faster or slower than others in same age groupings. These are generalizations
of the age group being described. They may vary by age as much as two or three years. Influences, adaptability and environment
may play key roles in these variances.
Obviously, theses little ones have very little ability to understand death or the fact that dying is inevitable
and a normal process of life. Their lives are primarily "need focused. The first noise out of a newborns mouth is a scream
or a cry. This is not their way of saying "hello" or "I love you". It is their expression that they want you to fulfill a
need that has become apparent to them.
Even though their ability to comprehend the total environment around them has not expanded much during these
early years, it is still appropriate to expose them to death and dying situations as need. Sometimes a brief visit to the
nursing home to see a family member that is terminally ill, or a few moments at the funeral home during the visitation, will
help the child start to develop a healthy psychological foundation of the reality of illness, potential loss and death. Encourage
families questioning whether or not to do this, that this experience in minimal increments will indeed a healthy experience
for the child.
Sheltering the child from death will only make it harder for them to accept later in life. It is not necessary
to explain in detail everything that is going on around them in these various environments of loss and grief. At this age,
their limited communication and comprehension will not yield questions that require much detail.
During this stage, children will begin to develop a very narrow concept of death. They see life and death
more in the light of animation or movement. They may find a dead bird or mouse in the back yard and notice its lack of movement.
This may make an impression in their mind that death means that things are motionless or unanimated.
They may or may not comprehend that death is irreversible. However, if they are exposed to large amounts
of the media, specifically movies and cartoons, they may see characters get "killed" during one episode and then re-appear
in the next show. This damages their concept of the finalization of death.
They may begin to verbalize what they are experiencing about death and the reality around it. Questions will
be basic and usually involve a need to resolve a conflict in their understanding or perception of death and/or dying.
At this age, they may begin to polarize either away from death or want to see death or dead "things" more.
This may be evidenced their extreme reaction in fear of the dead bird in the back yard they just discovered. Or, you may see
them constantly stepping on bugs in the driveway or sidewalk. If this becomes excessive, a simple conversation about why we
have "bugs and worms" will usually bring the perspective on life back into focus. There are rare occasions where professional
help may be necessary to prevent future issues or problems.
This group of children develop a more broader view of life and death. They begin to react emotionally as
they see others around them reacting emotionally to death and grief. Thus their emotions tend to be more "copy-cat" then genuine.
They cry or look sad because those they love or care for are. Many times they react emotionally out of fear of how others
are being affected by their grief. They begin to conceptualize that death brings sadness or despair. This can become more
intense in situations where adults around them in grief react more severely to the loss of death.
They also begin to fear the loss of someone close to them. A common question from this group would be, "When
is my mom or dad going to die?" Death and loss are beginning to become more of a reality of life.
As the reality of death starts to settle into their perceptions, they may often question why people die.
A keen interest in the causes of death may arise in conversations. Even though they may not be able to understand all the
details, sometimes it is important to be willing to discuss various causes of death in basic terms, should they ask. These
questions may also express themselves in an interest in graves, funerals or caskets.
At this age, the child's emotions are less "copy-cat" and more genuine. They will express emotions because
they are beginning to feel the same loos and its pain like other adults. This is because they are developing a more maturing
and encompassing view of death. They are more willing to verbalize their understanding of death and dying. Their statements
are more definitive and will often carry an element of emotion.
It is usually at this age that they will begin to realize their own mortality. They begin to realize that
death is inevitable and irreversible. These personal realizations may be difficult feelings for them to discuss openly or
freely. But they will often drop hints in conversations, writings or drawings that these thoughts are being considered.
Let them lead in such conversations. Never pry for more. Let them express this at their own pace. Caregivers
should display a "calm" interest in these communications. One of the worst reactions we can have is to stifle or criticize
their communications. Even in the event that they are making statements that do not accurately portray the reality of death
and grief, a true caregiver should gently nudge the perception of the facts into a more real posture.
Teenagers are unique. They tend to adapt various extreme views and concepts of death. They will
either think death is "cool" or they will try to ignore or avoid death and dying at all costs. I noticed this very clearly
as my two daughters progressed through their teens.
In those days my wife and our two daughters lived in the apartment above the funeral home we
owned and operated. Our daughters, who were both in their teens during this time frame, would invite their girl friends over
for the evening or the night. Some of their friends were eager to have my daughter take them on "the tour" downstairs in the
funeral home. Some of their guests didnt even want to walk past the closed door that led to the staircase down into the funeral
home area. Eventually even my own two daughters, who had never lived anywhere but at a funeral home, developed a more distant
view of the trappings and symbols of death and dying.
Those who remain in the "mental-middle" of these two extreme groups of teenagers, usually end
up playing with death and the ideals around it for a long time. Their attitudes often parallel the way a cat plays with a
captured mouse. The cat will play with the mouse for hours before finally killing it. Likewise many teenagers will mentally
play with ideals and perceptions of death, loss, grief and even an afterlife, before finally settling on a set of thoughts
Many times when confronted with loss or death they will attempt to postpone grief for as long
as possible. They become excellent stoics. Often they will attempt to disconnect themselves emotionally or even relationally
with the loved one who has died. This is especially noticeable when the death is very sudden or the result of trauma. They
seem to be more keenly aware of the shame factor in such circumstances.
Parents will often bring an angry or violent teen in for counseling. More times than not those
outward signs or inappropriate behavior have a core issue in their inability to work through grief or loss issues. It might
be the loss of a boyfriend, girlfriend, job or even the death of sibling or a grandparent. When the grief is properly identified
and addressed many times the childs behavior is modified and usually noticeably more tolerable.
In some cases this period of disconnection will last as long as six to nine months. But eventually
most teens will re-connect emotionally and relationally on their own terms.
Sometimes they will ask questions about the deceased, or they will begin looking at pictures
or sharing old photos or letters that have a connection in some way to the deceased. They may even establish a very basic
memorial or shrine in their bedroom to the departed loved one. It may even be unnoticeable or unrecognizable as such. Some
teens will not draw attention to the memorial or acknowledge it to anyone else. Parents, caregivers and other adults may have
to "read between the lines" to recognize it. But nevertheless, it is their way of re-connecting to the deceased and beginning
down the pathway of accepting the fact that death has touched them.
These experiences with death will often cause them form strong opinions about their own death
and final disposition. Most adults form the foundational attitude about their final disposition (burial, cremation, donation
etc.) during their teenage years. Less than 5% ever change their preference. This is where the society and in particular, educators, media and other dominant influences play a key role in the development
of the values around the situation of death itself and the methods of final disposition.
Creating Helpful Conversation
Lets discuss a few principals of conversation we should remember when talking with children about death and
dying. Try to realize that children dont have the same vocabulary that you as an adult may have and use. Because they are
still being educated, they may not know or understand the same language that you might use when talking with another adult
about death and/or dying. In very young children individual syllables may mean something in their mind that could change the
entire definition of what you are trying to communicate to them.
Always remember to put a name on your emotions. Reasoning and logic seem to work well with simple explanations
like "Im crying because Im very sad" or they are crying because they are sad because your grandpa has died." Dont be afraid
to use the words "died", "dead", or "death". Phrases like "passing on" and "gone away" or "went home" can be easily mis-interpreted
by younger children.
Be ready to assure them that there will come a time when things will get better. Never tell them everything
is OK right now. Simply because it isnt and they can tell it isnt. Trying to calm a troubled child down by telling them everything
is OK simply confuses them more. Be honest and yet compassionate in your responses and they will more than likely gather a
more clear perception of grief and loss when a death is experienced.
If they ask "Why did he or she die?" Keep you answer simple and short. If an honest evaluation is part of
the required answer (in cases of unexpected or tragic death), dont "sugar coat it" or make a hero out of a villain. Graphic
details are not necessary to make any point to the question of why someone has died.
One mother told me that her five year old boy while standing beside her fathers casket asked her why grandpa
died. She responded that he had had a "cardiac arrest". Later that evening she overheard him telling one of his young cousins
that grandpa had been arrested for playing cards and thats why he died. The young boy heard familiar syllables and defined
his mothers answer by his five year old understanding of "card" and "arrest". An answer like "Grandpas heart stopped working
they way it should" or "Grandpa was very sick and the doctors couldnt help him get better, even though they tried very hard
to." would have explained the cause of death to this little boy in a much more comprehendible way.
If they ask "Where did he or she go?" Again, simple honest answers are the best. This is one that as a parent
you have to prepare for. You should have an understandable concept of what you believe about an afterlife and/or spiritual
matters. It is never good enough to say that "grandpa went to be with grandma" or even "grandpa went to be with Jesus". Depending
on the age of the child, the next predicable questions from the child will be, "Where did grandma go?" or "Where is Jesus
at?" Answering questions like that can become very difficult to phrase for a five year old.
Using a statement like "Grandma is a sleep" will only serve to confuse a child. They are then going to think
that the potential of grandma waking up is very good. If this reply is used at an evening visitation at the funeral home where
there is going to be an actual funeral service the next day, the child might fell very betrayed when they come back the next
day and find grandma is still asleep.
Another popular explanation is that "Uncle John is on vacation." Again the child may immediately begin to
wander when he will be back home or even where is he spending his vacation.
Simple honest answers about what your family believes about life after death are going to be the best replies.
If you are a caregiver and a child asks this question of you, unless you know the familys exact beliefs, it is always best
to defer by saying something like, "Lets go over and see how youre Dad and Mom would answer that question." Spiritual issues
are best handled by immediate family members. The older and the more mature family members usually
If a child asks "Will I die?" Honesty is always the best answer. It may be hard to actually tell a very young
child that indeed someday they may die. Ultimately, you should say yes. Assure them that most people live a long time. Depending
on the childs age and ability to consider and understand many facts, it might be good to review why and how some people die,
putting the emphasis on the normal potential of longevity. If you sense the child might have an immediate fear of their own
death, it is good to reassure them of the things in their life that are secure. Statements like "Your parents love you very
much and take good care of you." "You live in a very safe community where people watch out for each other." The doctor knows
how to help you feel better, they really want you to be healthy."
All of those kinds of statements reassure a very young child of the security issues in their own life and
should soften the grip of the fear of their own personal death.
Summary and Conclusion
Remember that children form their attitudes about death at a very early age, so it is important to talk to
them and be willing to answer their questions on a level that they can comprehend what you are trying to communicate to them.
Depending on their age, and especially when talking to teens, remember that they are experiencing death and dying in many
of the same ways adults may be. A loss through death effects everyone. It may be dealt with or communicated in a variety of
ways. It may talk various individuals different periods of time to adjust to, but eventually with healthy precise and comprehendible
communicative we can help those younger ones around us to grow through and understand the grief they experience when someone
is dying or has died.