Explaining Death to a Child

When a death occurs in the family, one of the foremost concerns for parents is how to break the news to a child. It is our hope, if you find yourself in that heart-ache position, that you will find some clear and practical guidance here. Let the following suggestions guide you.

1. Tell your child about the death

Do not try to "protect" your children, or yourself, from the emotional pain you might experience by telling them about a death that has occurred. In their efforts to protect, parents actually aid in handicapping their children from being able to handle death and grief in a healthy manner (Wolfelt, 1998).


2. Be honest

Children want to be "told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." (Dougy Center, 1999a). This is especially true for teenagers. Do not try to "protect" your child from the truth. Falsehood and the lack of information will always hurt more.

Being Honest Involves At Least Three Things:

• Tell The Facts. 
Some children may not need every little detail, but they do deserve to receive factual information that is geared to their developmental level. Tell them that their loved one is "dead". "His body stopped working". "He is not breathing any more and he can not feel, hear, eat, or do any of the things living people can do".

• Avoid Euphemisms. 
Do not tell a child that "Daddy has gone to heaven", "Granddad is asleep", "Aunt Jane has gone to a better place", or "Johnny lost his mother". Young children are very literal in their thinking and "may become needlessly confused" and ask, "When is she coming back?" (Rosen, 1996, p.229). Furthermore, "common cliches can hurt the grief process" (Goldman, 2000, p.40).

• Share How You Feel About The Death. 

Do not be afraid to express your emotions and tears in the presence of children. This will let them know that you are hurting inside too and allow you to comfort each other. You will also teach children by example that it is OK to cry when someone dies. It is normal, natural and healthy. Your children will respect you for being "real".


3. Tell children as soon as possible

The best time to tell children about a death in the family is before a death actually occurs. Talking about death is much easier for everyone when there is no death to grieve. Many times though, this is not possible when a death comes unexpectedly. Whenever death occurs, the basic rule of thumb is to tell a child as soon as possible (Dougy Center, 1999a, p.6).


4. Tell children in a familiar place

Children will feel the most comfortable if they are in a familiar place when they are told of a death.  The idea is to minimize as many of the negative variables as we can when talking to children about things that may make them upset. It is worth taking the extra few minutes to tell children when they are at home or in some other familiar setting.


5. Let children hear it from someone they love and trust

It is not best to ask a doctor or nurse at the hospital to tell children that their loved one has died. A trusted family member should tell the children face-to-face in a calm setting. "When children get the news from a stranger, what is already a painful moment is sometimes made worse" (Dougy Center, 1999a, p.7).


6. Tell children according to their developmental needs

Children do not understand death like adults do. Likewise, the understanding of death develops along with age and emotional development. It is therefore important to understand developmental issues related to death so that we can appropriately assist children through the grief process (Goldman, 2000).


Infants and Toddlers
0 to 2 Years

Even though infants and toddlers do not yet understand death, they do understand separation from a primary caregiver. When someone close dies, they need the security and comfort in knowing that they will be taken care of. Keeping them on the same eating and sleeping schedule as before the death will help to give them this security. They may cry more than normal, so paying special attention to them and holding them more will also help to give them the assurance they need. When possible, minimizing changes in caregivers is also helpful.


Preschoolers
2 to 6 years

Young children do not quickly understand the finality of death. They think in very concrete terms. It takes time for the reality to settle in their young minds. Therefore, the patient repetition of the facts will help to make the finality of the death more of a reality to them. Be patient. Expect to answer the same questions many times. Speak freely with them about the death and continually reassure them that you love them and will take care of them.


Elementary Age Children
6 to 12 Years

From the ages of 6 to 12, children can be expected to ask a lot of hard questions about a death. Answer their questions honestly and directly. Do not leave answers to their imaginations; that can be far worse than the truth! Be prepared to hear some off-the-wall and even some gory questions. It is all in their honest attempt to learn and understand what has happened.

Magical thinking is common during this age also. This is when children believe they caused the death because of something they said, thought, or did (Dougy Center, 1997). For example, a boy might get in trouble for hitting an older sister and wish that "she would just drop dead", when she dies in a car accident a few weeks later he might think his wish came true. "It is important to reassure children as often as they need, that they are not at fault" (Dougy Center, 1999a, p.10). Remember also that children may feel a lot of guilt because of some kind of magical thinking and feel so ashamed that they do not say a word to anyone for years (Bacon, 1996).


Adolescents
13 to Adult

The teen years can be difficult years, even without the death of someone close. When a death does occur, the necessity of being open and honest with your teen is heightened (Dougy Center, 1999b). Remember these characteristics about teenagers when a death rocks their world:

Teenagers want to be told and they want to be included.Some teenagers want to be home with their family, while others want to be with their friends.Some teenagers want to talk about the death, while others do not.Some teenagers want to take care of other surviving family members.Some teenagers withdraw from family and friends.

It is most important to express love and acceptance to a grieving teenager. In many ways they seem like adults (they certainly think they are). Remember, they are still in an awkward transition between childhood and adulthood. Grieving Teenagers need you to:

Be Patient and Calm
Listen and Be Understanding
Accept Their Unique Grief Process

Show Them You Love Them


Some Concluding Thoughts

As you explain the death to your children, no matter the age, the most important thing to do is listen in a manner that assures them of your love and acceptance. Allow them to express their thoughts and feelings openly with you. Be someone they can talk to without feeling put down or intimidated.

Much of the information in these suggestions can be found in the books written by The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children & Families. We recommend the books of The Dougy Center very highly for anyone looking for resources in regard to helping children with grief. Their entire book list is available on-line at www.dougy.org.


References

Bacon, J. B. (1996). Support groups for bereaved children. In Corr, C. A., & Corr, D. M. (Eds.), Handbook of childhood death and bereavement (pp. 285-304). New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Dougy Center (1997). Helping children cope with death. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center For Grieving Children.

Dougy Center (1999a). What about the kids? Understanding their needs in funeral planning and services. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center For Grieving Children.

Dougy Center (1999b). Helping teens cope with death. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center For Grieving Children.

Goldman, L. (2000). Life and loss: A guide to help grieving children (2nd. ed.). Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Rosen, E. J. (1996). The family as healing resource. In Corr, C. A., & Corr, D. M. (Eds.), Handbook of childhood death and bereavement (pp. 223-243). New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Wolfelt, A. (1998). Helping children cope with grief. Bristol, PA: Accelerated Development, Inc.