As a little girl, I used to live next to a cemetery. From time to time, we went there for a walk with my parents, looking at the tombstones and creating stories about the people in the photographs. Death was never a taboo subject for us. But even if it’s not something your family talks about, it will no doubt come up sooner or later in conversation. Kids are curious and with All Souls’ Day coming up, it’s a good time to take your kids to the cemetery to light a candle for someone.
Some adults are afraid to discuss death with kids, often from the fear that it might cause kids (or even themselves) anxiety. Sometimes adults simply don’t know what to say. But death is a natural part of our lives and not talking about it doesn’t make it go away from our minds; quite the opposite. Kids encounter death already in fairy tales and it doesn’t cause much stress when sometimes a character such as an old king dies. During a walk in the forest, kids might see a dead beetle or a bird. Maybe someone they knew in the family has passed away. If your kids bring up the topic of death, don’t brush it off. Kids need to know they can talk about everything with you and that you are their support system. If you try to avoid the answer, they might start thinking that it’s something horrible they shouldn’t talk about. Then it might actually cause them anxiety and stress. On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to force the topic on them. Simply wait until your child is ready and then be there for them.
The way you discuss death with kids depends on your religious or other views, as well as the current situation. Make sure that you make it simple and don’t use words your child cannot understand. You should also be honest. Don’t tell kids something that isn’t true just to sugarcoat reality, such as that a deceased person is only sleeping, or that they went away. If you don’t have an answer to your kids’ questions, it’s better to say that you don’t know rather than making up something you don’t believe yourself. During childhood it’s good to develop kids’ respect for other viewpoints by saying that some people believe one thing, while others believe something else. If you’re unsure about which words you should use, you can find inspiration in stories and picture books. There are several great books that you can use, such as The Elephant in the Room, When Dinosaurs Die or The Death Book.
What should we say if someone close to us dies? If the family pet dies, allow kids to grieve and maybe create a nice grave and burial. Grief is, after all, a natural part of life, just like happiness. Let kids know it’s perfectly normal to feel sad and that they shouldn’t try to hide it. Unfortunately, it may also happen that a close family member or a friend dies. In this case, you should stay close to your kids and show that you are ready to listen to them. Let your kids express their memories about the deceased, if they want to. Let them light a candle, draw a picture or put a flower on the grave. “An open display of sadness and grief has a relaxing and healing effect, and it allows kids to grieve as well,” says child psychiatrist Iva Dudova. Reassure your kids that you’ll take care of them, that they are not responsible for the death of their loved one, and that they don’t have to be afraid of catching common diseases such as cold or fever.
Children’s perception of death differs and develops with age. Generally, kids begin to understand the irreversibility of death around the age of five. Small children understand death in the context of playing; for example, they can think that “grandpa’s batteries are out of power”, or they use fairy tale scenarios such as “granny left with the Death character”. Whether kids are fascinated or scared of death, it’s our job to let them know it’s a natural phenomenon and that we’re always there for support in whatever way they need.
Sources: Hospicenet.org – Talking to Children About Death
Written by Ladislava Whitcroft, Educational Specialist at Lipa
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