Challenges of Talking to a Young Child About Death
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 child’s 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 won’t be here to take care of you?” If that is the case, the reassuring and appropriate answer would be something like, “I don’t 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. There’s Aunt Ellen and Uncle John or Grandma.”
Other problems can arise from children’s misconceptions about death. Dr. R. Fulton, in Grollman’s 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 hasn’t gotten up yet. Maybe I won’t wake up either.