Children often become interested in, and preoccupied with, death around the ages of three to five years and parents can really struggle with explaining it to them – the natural instinct is to down play it, so as not to scare them. I am firmly of the belief that we should expose children to death (ie they should attend funerals) and discuss it in a factual, honest way with them. In other cultures death (and birth) are a normal part of everyday life that children are not shielded from, I think we could do well to learn from these societies.
I think it’s important to use words such as “dead”, “died” and “death”, not “passed away” and “passed on” when explaining death to a child. I would also keep religious talk (if you are religious/spiritual) out of these conversations initially. e.g I would not say “s/he has gone to heaven”, or “lives in the sky now” (even if this is what you believe) and I would definitely not use language about “going to sleep”. Finally, I would not say “s/he was poorly”, or “s/he was sick”, instead I would say “s/he died from xxx” (naming the actual disease). The language we use is VERY important when explaining death to children. We need to be very clear about what we mean, explaining somebody is in the sky or similar leaves it open to interpretation that they may come back. Saying something like “s/he was poorly” can leave children worried that they may die whenever they are sick and “gone to sleep” can cause worry at bedtime. The more precise and matter of fact you can be when explaining cause of death the better. Re. spiritual beliefs of an afterlife, it is fine to discuss these, but only when children have a good grasp of death and what it means, not included in initial conversations.
When helping children to understand death (and especially the permanence of it), it can help to use examples children may have been exposed to – e.g: the death of a pet (allowing them to see the body and take part in any burial), the death of a houseplant, or even the death of an insect. This helps to make it tangible to them. I would also read books about death, e.g: ‘Goodbye Mog’, or Margot Sunderland’s ‘The Day the Sea Went Out & Never Came Back’ to help the child to process their feelings in a safe, child-friendly way.
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