Talking about death often makes adults uncomfortable. In particular, if we have to talk about it with children, we usually tend to deflect or to beat around the bush.
These behaviours are a consequence of the adults’ inability to face painful themes, together with the rooted opinion that talking about death is a cultural taboo. Too often, adults think that children are not able to cope with death, grief and illness.
However, it is essential to provide people with tools to talk about death with their children, in order to help them develop healthy coping strategies in case a tragic event occurs.
Why Is It Important To Talk To Children About Death?
The goal of this article is to make people understand why it is important to talk about death with children and how to do it.
Around the age of 4-7 years old, children start asking specific questions about the meaning of death.
Alba Marcoli (2014) reports some questions, for example: “Mum, why has Jesus risen and grandpa hasn’t?” (Federico, 5 years old).
These questions are difficult to deal with: on one hand we don’t want to hurt the child and on the other hand, we feel incapable of providing ourselves with a satisfactory answer.
What Happens When We Avoid Talking About Death With Children
When someone who the child knows dies, could be a relative, a friend, a parent, the strategies usually employed by adults can be divided into:
- Avoidance techniques – for instance, we exclude children from any serious conversation about death, we pretend that everything is fine, we try to conceal our sadness, we distract them, we tell them half-truths.
- Analogies – for instance, we say that the person who died is asleep, that we lost that person, that the person has gone far away.
If something tragic happened and we avoid to explain it to the child and include them in our conversations, they will be scared and confused. In fact, the child can understand that the adult is lying. It is reasonable to want to protect them; nevertheless, they can understand more than we think.
They will understand that something is wrong anyway. They could think that the adults are lying and that they cannot trust them. They could be worried and scared and not feel free to express their emotions.
Moreover, telling children that a loved one has died using analogies is not appropriate, as children interpret them literally. A child could be afraid to sleep because we told them that someone who actually died is just asleep. Telling them that we lost a person could result in them looking for that person.
When To Talk To Children About Death
Children understand the idea of death through a gradual process that includes various phases, these are influenced by the child’s stage of cognitive development and personality:
- 0-2 years old: During this phase, children acquire knowledge through sensory experiences. Even though they could not have an extended vocabulary, they are great listeners, for this reason, many authors suggest that you should tell them about the death of a loved one with simple sentences, especially if it is a parent or caregiver.
- 3-6 years old: At this age, death is perceived as not definitive; The idea of death as a reversible event could come from animated movies, stories and videogames in which the characters have many lives or can come back from the afterlife. The death of a pet or a beloved person is experienced as something which is just temporary. Children use magical thinking, they believe that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, can influence the course of events in the material world. For example, they could think that they can have their pet or grandma back just by saying that they want them to be alive again. Moreover, their thinking is influenced by a phase of egocentrism typical of this age.
- 7-10 years old: At this age, children begin to elaborate a more realistic idea of death; they could have already experienced the death of their pet or an old relative and they are now able to understand that death is not reversible. They are also able to understand things symbolically and to grasp the ideas of past and future. They become less egocentric and begin to understand that not everyone shares their same thoughts, beliefs, or feelings. Being more aware of their own emotions, they also begin to recognise those emotions in other people.
- 11-12 years old: Around this age children comprehend the permanence of death. They also understand that adults have a limited understanding of death as well and they are usually scared of it, that everything that is alive eventually dies and that there are physical reasons why someone dies. These thoughts could be difficult to manage for children, so it is important to be open to answer their questions and make them feel free to express their emotions.
How do we answer their questions? It depends on the child’s age and cognitive development, but it also depends on which scenario we are dealing with. In many cases, the person who is talking to the child is grieving as well.
If we are facing a great loss in our life ourselves, we may not be emotionally open to answer the child’s questions, and we could not have the patience and the energy to help them during the weeks and months that follow our loss. It is advisable to have a friend or a relative who can discuss the topic with the child when it is too tough for us.
How To Talk About Death With Children & What To Say
Our job as adults (whether we are therapists, parents, relatives or friends) is to help children to face the reality of life in an honest and informed way.
In this way, we will help them through the grieving process. They are not too young to know what is going on if you speak in a simple, brief, straightforward but not brutal manner, based on the child’s development and personality. You must allow them to ask questions and make an effort not to dominate the conversation.
Use the term “death” when you refer to what happened, you could say something like “Your grandpa is very sick, the doctors said that he is not going to get better, he may die soon” or “I need to tell you that your uncle died last night”. Be open, allow them to talk about their feelings, to cry, to go out of control and be loud.
Children can express their grief in different ways, for instance through drawing, writing or singing. Some children will need physical contact while others will not be comfortable with being physical, in both cases, you should respect their decisions.
Give them space to share and express their emotions: you could decide to provide photos and videos to help them express their love for that person or to write a letter together, or you could want to remember the person by doing something that they enjoyed. It is important not to minimise the traumatic nature of certain memories.
Thinking and speaking about the lost person will inevitably lead to sadness and fear: give the child time. They could ask you a few questions and then change the topic completely or ask you to play together, or you may have to explain the same thing to them several times: be sensitive to their needs.
A concluding thought to this article: it is not easy to guide children through their grieving process if we have not dealt with our personal issues with death yet. Understanding our issues and how to deal with them will help us, and will teach us how to support children in a healthy way.
Lieberman, Alicia F., Compton, Nancy C., Van Horn, Patricia, Ghosh Ippen, Chandra, Losing a Parent to Death in the Early Years: Guidelines for the Treatment of Traumatic Bereavement in Infancy and Early Childhood – 2003
Marcoli, Alba, La nonna è ancora morta? Milano, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore – 2014.
Oppenheim, Daniel, Dialoghi con i bambini sulla morte, le fantasie, i vissuti, le parole sul lutto e i distacchi (Dialogues avec les enfants sur la vie et la mort), Edizioni Erickson, Gardolo-Trento – 2004.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychological Sciences and Techniques at the University of Trieste (Italy) in 2011. I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social, Work and Communication Psychology at the University of Padua (Italy) with first-class Honours in 2014. I then completed a one-year internship at the Children’s Hospital “Burlo Garofolo” of Trieste (Italy) through a charity to be able to qualify for the Psychologists Register of Friuli Venezia Giulia. During the internship, I dealt with many difficult situations as severe disabilities and the death of a sibling so I started to be interested in childhood bereavement and grief. In 2017 I participated as a speaker in the International Conference “IDENTITY AGONIES: LIVING DYINGLY” in Padua (Italy) with a speech about how to explain death to children. I moved to London in 2018 and I’m currently registered as Graduate Member within The British Psychological Society.