By: Jennifer McCarville
We will all experience loss through death many times in our lives and in a variety of ways. Still, many of us struggle with the emotions which surround loved ones dying. Helping children to grasp and understand the concept of death is an important part of nurturing their emotional development and their hearts. But how do we help our littles when we are often uncomfortable or uncertain of how to answer their questions?
Life is beautiful and sacred and a gift from God. Whenever I talk to children about death I try to remember to include assurances that life is precious and that God has a plan for everything, including death and dying. I strive to keep my discussions simple, honest, and Biblical.
While differences in personalities, situations, and religious beliefs can be vast there are some things we can all consider when discussing death with all young children.
Here are some of the tips and language I share with our Marvelously Made community which I have found helpful in talking to children about death:
- Don’t wait until you are faced with the death of a loved one to begin talking about death. Rather, include conversations about death and dying in your day-to-day life and use every day experiences as springboards for conversation. Discussions about bugs dying can be much easier than working through the death of a person close to a child.
- Use books to help open the conversation! Some of the ones I recommend are included at the end of this post. Present books about death and dying in casual and gentle ways without much fanfare and be ready to answer any questions your child may ask afterward. It is important to realize that young children don’t have your perception of death and the topic usually doesn’t carry the same emotional weight for them as it may for you. (I still probably wouldn’t read them as bedtime stories. Just sayin’…)
- Keep it simple and be specific about what death means. Explain that when someone is dead they are not in pain, don’t need their body anymore, and will not be coming back. In our faith, we believe that God created our bodies and breathed life (our spirits) into them. Therefore, when someone dies they no longer need their body and their spirit moves out of their body and joins God in Heaven. And always remember that less can be best when we are processing big concepts.
- Use the words “dead”, “died”, and “death” rather than euphemisms like “passed away” or “we lost Nana”. Children are very concrete thinkers and such language often will confuse them.
- When a disease has caused death naming it can be helpful. Children and people they love get sick often and young children may worry that common illnesses will cause death if they are only told someone “got sick and died”.
- Model respect for creatures and critters which have died. And don’t be alarmed if your young child seems to be unphased by a dead frog or bird or lizard. This happens because they don’t understand the finality of death; not because they are unkind or uncaring.
- Acknowledge all the feelings! Sad, angry, confused, uncomfortable, joyful, scared, numb. All of the feelings have to be ok. And, when you have experienced the death of a loved one remember it is ok to share your sadness with your child. It is healthy and important to say things like, “Today is Grandpa’s birthday and I am sad because I miss him”.
- Hold funerals for pets and critters which have died. A simple acknowledgment of the dead body, placing it respectfully in a box, digging a grave, making a headstone, saying some kind words, singing a song, lifting a prayer of thanks… these are powerful and important steps for us all. You may be more of a flush-the-fish kind of family and that is ok, too! But maybe say a little something about how special Nemo was before you send him off…
- When someone you know dies consider sending cards or flowers.
- If you feel it is appropriate to take your child to the funeral of a loved one be sure to explain what they will see. Saying, “There will be a box called a coffin at the front of the church and a photo of Uncle Don beside it. We will listen as a person talks about him and then sing some songs. Afterward, we will go to a large room and share a meal together” will help your child be somewhat prepared for such an uncommon event.
- Don’t bombard your children with too much information. Answer their questions honestly and simply. Allow them time to ponder and think. Wait for their questions and remember that your job is to protect them from too much information, while; at the same time, honestly and simply answering the questions they bring to you. Never give them too much to carry emotionally by volunteering adult information or divulging details which they do not need.
- As Christians, we are assured that we will see our loved ones again when we get to heaven. This can offer comfort when a loved one dies. Praise God for the gift of eternal life and be sure to tell your children that our spirits leave our dead bodies and reside in Heaven with God where we will meet again.
Perhaps the most important thing I want children to know is that love never dies. People who die are never forgotten and the love and lessons they shared will live on in us and through us until the end of time.
Below we have included some of our favorite books on the subjects of death and dying. If you have a favorite we have not listed please let us know in the comments. (Affiliate links included. They do not change the price of the item for you, but do benefit the school):