When I was little, I remember being confused about how a person died. I asked my mom how my uncle died and she said, “He died in a car accident.” I already knew that. It was the dying part I didn’t understand. I wanted to know how a person actually dies, so I pressed and asked her, “But, how did he die?”
She explained that a semi-truck collided with the car he was a passenger in. He died instantly.
It was a detailed explanation, but it still didn’t answer what I was confused about and I didn’t know how to ask her in a different way.
I think I was about ten years old at the time and I couldn’t grasp the concept of a person being alive one moment and dead the next. Maybe it was because I knew other people who had been in car accidents and hadn’t died. I had also never seen a dead body at the point, so it seemed unreal to me. I asked again, “But, how did he die?”
In retrospect, I’m sure this was a horribly difficult conversation for my mom to be having, but she was patient with me. Eventually she realized what I was trying to comprehend so she matter-of-factly explained that the impact of the semi colliding with the car was so strong that it caused his aorta to separate from his heart, and when that happens, the person dies.
I know that sounds brutally graphic to an adult, but it was exactly what I personally needed to know. It made perfect sense and I was so relieved to finally understand, but not every kid wants nor needs to know that. What a parent says about death should depend on the child’s age, personality, and experience. There is a risk of scaring a child with too much detail or confusing a child with not enough detail. (I don’t recommend explaining severed aortas unless you have an unusually analytical pre-teen, like me, who asks “why” incessantly.)
Death is probably the most difficult thing to talk to children about, but it’s an inevitable part of life, so it can’t be avoided forever. Nobody likes to talk about things that upset them, but avoiding the topic of death entirely sends a message to children that it’s not okay to talk about their confusion, fears, and sadness. We want them to talk about grief and ask questions about things that make them anxious so they can learn to cope with it.
Most children naturally ask questions, but some may outwardly appear to be unconcerned about death. Just because they don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean they’re okay with it. It can often be difficult for a parent to hear what children are asking about death because the questions may seem shockingly insensitive to an adult. Try to remember that it’s just a child’s attempt to understand something very abstract.
Try not to say that a person who has died “went away”, “went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” or “got sick”. These are things that happen to the child every day and we don’t want them to become afraid of sleeping, having someone go away, or getting sick. Be honest. Actually call it death and dying, no matter how hard it is to say those words yourself. They need to understand that it’s different, and it’s permanent.
Take opportunities to talk to children about death before it happens so you are not emotional. If your child expresses curiosity about a dead insect or animal, you can use it as a way to teach your own beliefs about death and show them that it’s okay to talk about those types of things with you. One caution though, don’t force children to talk about death or visit sick people if they don’t want to. They’ll ask questions when they are ready, as long as they know it’s okay to ask.
Children deal with grief in ways that are limited by the developmental stage they are in at the time. There are some aspects of understanding death that a child literally can’t comprehend until adolescence, so they may re-experience sadness about an old loss when they are mature enough to understand it on a deeper level. Don’t be alarmed if the old grief is unexpectedly stirred up when your child becomes a teenager. For example, a teen who lost a family member in a car accident when she was six, may develop anxieties about driving when she’s sixteen. Even if it’s years later, be patient and support them as they figure it out.
If you have recently experienced a loss, give yourself permission to grieve and don’t hesitate to ask for support when you need it. A doctor, school guidance counselor, or mental health organization can provide assistance and recommendations. Also look for books, websites, support groups, and other resources that help people manage grief.