Talking to Your Child
About the Loss of a Loved One
Part 4: The Challenge of Talking to a Young Child
Communicating with preschoolers or young school-age children about any subject can be challenging. They need brief and simple explanations. Long lectures or complicated responses to their questions will probably bore or confuse them and should be avoided. Using concrete and familiar examples may help. For instance, Dr. Earl A. Grollman suggests in his book, Explaining Death to Children, that death may be made more comprehensible by explaining it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions - when people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel any more; when dogs die they do not bark or run any more; dead flowers do not grow or bloom any more.
A child may ask questions immediately or may respond with thoughtful silence and come back at a later time to ask more questions. Each question deserves a simple and relevant answer. Checking to see if a child has understood what has been said is critical; youngsters sometimes confuse what they hear. Also, children learn through repetition, and they may need to hear the same question answered over and over again. As time passes and children have new experiences, they will need further clarification and sharing of ideas and feelings.
It may take time for a child to understand fully the ramifications of death and its emotional implications. A child who knows that Uncle Ed has died may still ask why Aunt Susan is crying. The child needs an answer. Aunt Susan is crying because she is sad that Uncle Ed has died. She misses him very much. We all feel sad when someone we care about dies.
There are also times when we have difficulty hearing what children are asking us. A question that may seem shockingly insensitive to an adult may be a childs request for reassurance. For instance, a question such as, When will you die? needs to be heard with the realization that the young child perceives death as temporary. While the finality of death is not fully understood, a child may realize that death means separation, and separation from parents and the loss of care involved are frightening. Being cared for is a realistic and practical concern, and a child needs to be reassured. Possibly the best way to answer such a question is by asking a clarifying question in return: Are you worried that I wont be here to take care of you? If that is the case, the reassuring and appropriate answer would be something like, I dont expect to die for a long time. I expect to be here to take care of you as long as you need me, but if Mummy and Daddy did die, there are lots of people to take care of you. Theres Aunt Ellen and Uncle John or Grandma.
Other problems can arise from childrens misconceptions about death. Dr. R. Fulton, in Grollmans Explaining Death to Children, points out that some children confuse death with sleep, particularly if they hear adults refer to death with one of the many euphemisms for sleep - eternal rest, rest in peace.
As a result of the confusion, a child may become afraid of going to bed or of taking naps. Grandma went to sleep and hasnt gotten up yet. Maybe I wont wake up either.
Similarly, if children are told that someone who died went away, brief separations may begin to worry them. Grandpa went away and hasnt come back yet. Maybe Mummy wont come back from the shops or from work. Therefore, it is important to avoid such words as sleep, rest, or went away when talking to a child about death.
Telling children that sickness was the cause of a death can also create problems, if the truth is not tempered with reassurance. Preschoolers cannot differentiate between temporary and fatal illness, and minor ailments may begin to cause them unnecessary concern. When talking to a child about someone who has died as a result of an illness, it might be helpful to explain that only a very serious illness may cause death, and that although we all get sick sometimes, we usually get better again.
Another generalization we often make unthinkingly is relating death to old age. Statements such as, Only old people die or, Aunt Hannah died because she was old can lead to distrust when a child eventually learns that young people die, too. It might be better to say something like, Aunt Hannah lived a long time before she died. Most people live a long time, but some dont. I expect you and I will.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Mar 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.