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Talking to Children about Death

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#1 *Ghania*

Posted 29 June 2009 - 12:33 AM

As a mother, I have discovered that there are a number of topics which are difficult to explain to young children.  So far I have been able to deal with questions such as “how do babies get in your tummy?” without too much strife, comfortable with the knowledge that when the time is right and my children are old enough to understand, the truth will be told.  One particular topic that has received quite some attention at my place, however, is death.  And unlike sex, in my opinion it’s a topic that requires the truth to be told regardless of a child’s age.

As some of you know may know, my mother passed away 6 years ago when my eldest child was only 7 months old.  Despite her absence, I often talk about my mother when I’m with my children, reminiscing about my own childhood memories involving my mother or telling them about how much I miss her. As a consequence, my children were introduced to the concept of death from quite a young age. Yet even so, I suspected for a long time that they did not, and indeed could not, really understand what death meant.

A short while ago my grandfather was admitted to hospital. I took the kids to visit him and it turned out to be the last time that they would get to see him.  After leaving the hospital, I explained to my children that my grandfather was quite unwell and that it was most likely he would pass away soon.

My youngest, a generally cheerful 3 year old, responded with “Oh yes! He’s going to die like this” at which point she closed her eyes and then re-opened them. “And then later”, she continued “he will wake up and be all better”.

It seemed her concept of death resembled that of sleeping. I tried to explain to her that death meant he would not be able to wake up again and mentioned my mother’s absence, at which point she started to cry and said “I want your mummy! Why can’t I see you mummy? Tell her to come back down from the sky!”

Needless to say the discussion wasn’t going as well as I had planned, so after comforting my 3 year old (and myself) I veered the discussion into less emotive grounds.

Later that night, my 5 and 6 year old approached me to ask me about my grandfather and why he would be dying soon. I was not aware of any right or wrong way of discussing death with young children so I simply explained his illness to them and answered all their questions as honestly as I could. This appeared to reassure them and satisfy their urge for more information.

In hindsight, I’m quite glad that we had that discussion. My grandfather passed away late last week and it was an emotional time for us all.  But because I had discussed his illness and impending death with my children, they were more accepting of my tears and grief and of the situation itself.  They understood that it meant they would never see him again and when they asked me about what happens to his body, we discussed Heaven and I tried to explain to them the difference between a body and a soul.  

I’m not sure how much of that particular discussion they understood, because while they quite like the notion of Heaven and eternal life therein, they seemed to have some difficulty grasping the notion of a soul.  Unfortunately, regardless of our attempts as parents to simplify complex issues, there remains a number of topics that are simply beyond the comprehension of a young child.  In this instance, I believe that my children’s understanding of death will grow as they grow and it may not be until they are adults that they fully understand.

Have you had to discuss the topic of death with your child(ren)? If so, what was your approach and do you think it worked well?

#2 ~~Kys~~

Posted 29 June 2009 - 12:53 AM

Have you had to discuss the topic of death with your child(ren)? If so, what was your approach and do you think it worked well?

We have had the death talk with our daughter, first time was when she asked about Bindi's dad steve, as she is a snake nut lol and the last time was just last night when she was asking us why a show was on, that show being the MJ one.

The first time we explained that Steve Irwin had died when he was swimming in the ocean, then cam the how why, so we explained by a sting ray and it was a very rare way to die. We explained further that when someone dies you can't see them anymore and that the way you can remember them is by looking at photos, memories, videos of them etc. DD is a very smart girl for her age and back when we had this conversation she understood more then i thought a 3/4yo would. We just answered her truthfully in an age appropriate way but then her questions got more complex showing us she wanted a more detailed answer.

I think by not brushing things off and by being truthful in how we answered her questions it was easier when it came up again last night. She has an understanding that one day everyone dies and there are many different reasons why people die. This has also helped us when she asked why she has to sit in her tethered booster but her friend gets to sit in the front seat. It was a simple if we had a crash you are safest in your seat, as people can die from car crashes.

Now when i talk about my nanna she understands that yes she is dead but its lovely to talk about her and to remember her.

I think the way we have approached it may not be the best way for every parent but for us we feel its best to explain as truthfully as possible everything whether it be death/where babies come from/why someone is in a wheelchair etc. It makes it easier for us in the future when the conversation arises again. This is all much to my mums disgust as she thinks we shouldn't get so detailed but that is what my daughter wants, i think my mum believes she is too young to knwo the truth.

#3 ratbags

Posted 29 June 2009 - 01:18 AM

Yes extensively for the past 10 years we have talked with our children about death and it's implications to living our lives with loss.

Our son's lead the discussions because my DH and I feel that it is important that the questions come from them at their pace. All our boys around 5-6 become more inquisitive about what their sister was like, what she liked to eat, what she felt like, what she wore when she died, whether she wore nappies when she died etc...

They have wanted to know where she is, whether she was buried, and then when they find out that she was cremated they have all then asked what cremation is. I feel that children need to understand that death is permenant, death is also a life cycle that we will all die.

When our daughter died we videoed our grieving, my DH videoed my son and I dressing her in her final outfit, we captured the tears and the immense sadness. We felt that capturing all this on film was so important for our son and future children to see to appreciate who their sister was, it was like giving her a life for them to grasp.

Our children want to talk about her death so that they can place her in their family, without conversation about her I think that our son's would struggle with working out where they fit in in our family structure.

I agree with Kys that truth when speaking of death is important, children obviously do not need the gory details of death (even though trying to explain cremation without the details of the process can be tricky). When we videoed our daughter before and afer her death, it has given our son's the opportunity to see with their own eyes her life, they can see that she was sick that she was dying and they can see that everyone did the best they could for her. It is almost like giving them the opportunity to process from it what they can if that makes sense?

I think what is so important is not only in how to talk with children about death and to be open in answering their questions, but also in opening your emotions to the truth of death. To not cry in front of children through fear of not wanting to burden them, is in my opinion potentially stopping them from learning the true emotion of death and that death is a huge sad event that you can survive, process and in time move through. Children are more accepting and can tolerate so much more than we give them credit for, it is like through their innocence they see the love, they understand the depth and it gives them the opportunity to show compassion and sadness also.

We have always told our boys, that the depth of your heartache when grieving for someone shows you how much you loved that person to begin with.

My DH and I promote truth and an open discussion view, children need to be able to feel that they can talk about a loved one that has died knowing that we will be willing to share that person with them, because sometimes it is only our memories that make that person a reality to our children.

Edited by ratbags, 29 June 2009 - 01:40 AM.

#4 tam*p

Posted 03 July 2009 - 01:45 PM

I have had to talk to my now 4yo son a number of times about death. His grandmother (who lived in South Africa and he only met once) died when he was 15mths old, and like Ghania, we talk about her so he knows who she is and remembers that she is a part of his life. More recently, we have had to talk about death when our beloved dog died last year, and this year, when a series of goldfish gave up the ghost (so to speak), followed by the death of my 85yo grandfather.
I have tried to talk with him honestly about it, however as a non-Christian who believes in reincarnation, telling him that everyone has gone to 'Heaven' doesn't seem honest to me. Easy, but not honest...
After many tears, he seems to have processed my explanations in his own way. As i am sure he will continue to do throughout his life.

#5 tash_earl_grey

Posted 07 July 2009 - 03:37 PM

My daughter (Born 05-04-05) had a rather amusing understanding of death following my father's premature demise (age 57) from early onset alzheimers with pneumonia complications.

She'd been accustomed to his inability to communicate, and seemed to have her own private language involving belly pokes and giggles.

So when he declined and became almost catatonic earlier this year, it was difficult to explain. I finally said that he had a rare illness that his body couldn't recover from and that eventually he'd die. When he did pass away, I told her that he'd gone to heaven where he'd get to see his parents and brother David. I told her that I was sad because I missed him, but that I was happy for him since he'd never feel sore or sick anymore and that he'd always be happy and have fun. I said that his body didn't work so he'd leave it behind and would take the part of him that felt happy and had dreams. (How else do you describe a soul to a 4 year old?)

She thought about it for a while, then announced to me that Pa would probably play footy with Uncle David for a while, then he'd have a Babycino with his Mum and Dad then he'd go on the slide and the bouncy castle! I realised that my description of heaven had translated in her mind as some kind of super-dooper play centre! biggrin.gif

In the end, her innocent happiness for Pa and her constant reassurances that he'd be having lots of fun now made it easier for me to cope. I won't change her concept of death, I think hers is healthier than most and I'm sure that over time it will develop at her own pace.

#6 boobahmumma

Posted 08 July 2009 - 10:50 PM

I'm suprised that you seem to infer that you lie to your kids about sex and how babies are made. It's not that I think kids need to be lectured on the subject but my veiw is that all things need to be shared honestly in age appropriate ways with our children. In the case of death, my children were exposed to death firstly my first daughter grew up knowing that her father had died while she was a baby. It was something she grew up knowing but as other posters have mentioned her real understanding of it has grown and changed as she has. Living with pets also introduced the concept of death to my younger children, sadly we lost some baby chicks one winter, some goldfish once and tragically our much loved cat. while it was hard to explain about what had happenned to our pets it gave my childrena chance to be exposed to death and to see our rituals involved. We held a ceremony and a burial for the animals and my children saw their bodies to see *death*. They also saw my grief and were able to talk about their feelings.
tragically for my family my partner and father of my 2nd and 3rd children also died and the fact that my children had already been exposed to death in their life really helped at the time. That my middle child had a basic concept that death was forever and that they knew what a funeral was and had some idea of what to expect was a relief in a way. At least it wasn't a new concept that I had to think about explaining for the first time.
Dealing with death is a part of life. I don't think it needs to be hidden from children. We have several great books that explain death in varying ways. beginnings and endings with lifetimes in between is a good one.
I have also had to try and explain the concept of a soul. my hildren like to tink that their fathers are twinkling stars looking down on them.
As someone who does not follow one particular faith and who wants my children to make upthere own mind on *what happens after death* I do not have one explantaion for them. sometimes i just ask them for their own veiws. then we discuss it together.
One of the hardest parts about talking about death in our family, is not the facts of death but the emotions that are involved in losing someone. loss happens with many experiences in life and I try my best to help my children deal with their emotions. there can be sadness, anger, and all sorts of feelings involved. At times I have had to shield my children from the intensity of my feelings of grief, but for the most part It's important to me that we all be able to share our feelings and that it's ok to feel sad or angry or lost or even happy.

#7 *Ghania*

Posted 09 July 2009 - 11:18 AM

Hi boobahmumma, thank you for sharing your story and views. I agree that our childrens' view of death evolves as they grow and i think it is the same with sex. I did not intend to infer that i lie to my kids about sex. We haven't discussed the topic "sex" per say but rather questions such as "how do babies get into your tummy". Rather than launch into a discussion regarding sex, which i believe is age inapproriate for my children (ages 3 to 7), i have dealt with their curiosity by explaining that a child is a product of two peoples love for each other and is planted in the mummy's tummy by God. Ofcourse, that is not an explanation that works for everyone but it has worked for me and in due time i will sit down with my children and discuss the issue of sex more openly.

#8 Hesso

Posted 20 July 2009 - 10:18 AM

My father lived with us and died in Feb this year after being sick for almost a year. My boys 2 and 4 watched Pop get sick over a period of time and this seemed to ease them into it when he passed away. They watched us go through the whole spectrum of emotions that comes with greiving. Through it all we reminded them that we loved them and it was ok to feel this way some times. We also tried to tell them that were very lucky they had the time they did with their Pop and we try to remember all the lovely things he did when he was alive.
I didn't take them to the funeral ,although we had been advised to, but they were at the wake which we told them was a party to celebrate Pop's life.
When they ask where Pop is now I tell them he is a star in the sky and that if they miss him they can look up and talk to him whenever they want to.
Their experience has already come in useful as their Aunt died 6 weeks after my Dad, very unexpectedly. My boys have coped so well with such a traumatic time. They often talk about Pop and Aunty and I heard them in the garden last week yelling up to the sky "We love you Pop. We love you Aunty. We miss you!!"
Although it reduces me to a blubbering mess I am thrilled my boys have adjusted to our loss. I am also a little surprised that even months after not seeing Pop and Aunty they remember them without my prompting. I thought that especially for a 2 yo that it might be a case of out of sight, out of mind. I won't underestimate them again!! Or at least I'll try not to...

#9 iwanttousecloth

Posted 25 July 2009 - 12:46 AM

See I think that sometimes talking to children about death is not such a good thing - well in my house it is definately not I thought I would tell my  boys about death when a few things happened in our life - my dads dog died, then my Pop died and then the death of MJ which my children knew that I loved as well., Now they keep going on about it and get all upset with comments like, "i dont want you to die, Mummy I love you so much who will look after me?" They cry about it and for a 4 and a 5yr old to focus on this aspect well it kind of takes the magic of being a child away when they have to deal with such trauma at a young age such as death. My parents told me I should not have explained it to them and let them be kids. If I had of known this would have been the outcome I would have treated it differently.
I asked my son the other day whether there was anything he was worried about he said, "I dont want you to die Mummy, I dont want any of my family who I love to die." That is a lot of worry on a 5yr olds shoulder.

#10 pceh

Posted 25 July 2009 - 07:56 PM

I told my children nothing about death I have never even mentioned it. Our DD died very suddenly this year and with the utter devastation that my DH and I were enduring we had to try and explain to our boys where there sister had gone. It was truly awful I wish I had have explained something about death to them before so they could have grasped some sort of concept of what happened to her. I have been told by trained people since that children do not have an understanding of finality - death until they're at least 10 years old. Apparently they can't mentality understand it regardless of what we try and explain they understand that someone has gone but they truly think in the back of there minds that there is a possibility that they may come back. I told my son that we were going on a holiday next month and his response was, will we be going past the hospital to pick Ella up so she can come. I hate that my gorgeous little boys have been robbed of there innocence at such a young age but I guess that’s life I never expected to bury my little girl.

#11 *Ghania*

Posted 30 July 2009 - 11:52 PM

pceh - i am very sorry to hear about your loss. It is indeed very hard for children to understand the finality of death. Best wishes for the future and may your pain and that of your family ease as the days go by.

#12 mummamia02

Posted 01 August 2009 - 10:55 AM

I once went to a grief and loss workshop and it was really interesting.  The pyschologist said that when children are dealing with death, it is very important that you tell them the facts.  They need to understand what happened.  to say for example "poppy died in his sleep", could make your child fearful of sleeping, as they may think they will die, and be afraid to go to sleep.  She recommended you say something more along the lines of "Poppy's heart wasn't working properly and it stopped, that's why he died" or whatever happened.  
Tell them the truth, then they can get their heads around it, otherwsie it can confuse them.

pceh, sorry for your loss sad.gif

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