How to talk about death with children

How to talk about death with children

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Although many parents avoid discussing death with their children, at some point in their lives, they will have to. When a family member or friend dies, we often don't know what to say to them. How can we explain the inexplicable to children?

It is true that talking about it does not solve all problems, but if it is not talked about we may be creating taboos and limitations when it comes to understanding the meaning of death and the feelings it generates.

The arguments or words that we must use to explain death to our children or the moment chosen to do it, it will depend on how old they are. And it will also depend on our own experiences, beliefs, feelings and circumstances, since each situation we face is, in some way, different.

Children are aware of death, long before we know it. Almost every day, children see situations of death on the news, newspapers, video games or cartoons. Death is present in the stories of princesses, fairies, etc. Death is part of everyday life. If we allow children to talk to us about death, we will be giving them the information they need.

Should we talk about death with our children? Children perceive everything that happens around them, even when we avoid talking about an issue that affects us or that we do not know how to raise it. Some parents prefer not to discuss these topics to protect their children from worries or possible abuse, and others consider it unwise to discuss any topic with children, arguing that they may not understand or want to know.

However, for sensitive topics, we have to find a balance between avoiding and confronting information:

- Always be open to communication attempts by children

- Listen, understand and respect children's feelings

- Give sincere explanations, with feelings, brief and easy to understand

- Give answers in a simple and appropriate language for the child's age

- Observe if the child understood the explanation and do not leave him with doubts

Studies reveal that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. Preschoolers normally understand death as something reversible, temporary and impersonal, as it happens in cartoons, for example. Between the ages of five and nine, most children begin to realize that death is definite and that we all end up dying, although they harbor the idea that, in some way, we can escape from it through our own ingenuity.

At these ages, children associate death with a skeleton or with an angel, and some of them even have nightmares. Beginning at the age of nine or ten and during adolescence, children begin to fully understand that death is irreversible, and they begin to develop philosophical ideas about life and death.

Dr. Earl A. Grollman, in his book Explaining Death to Children he says death can best be explained in very simple terms. According to him, children should be explained that when people die they no longer breathe, eat, speak, think and feel. They are like dead dogs that stop barking and running or like dead flowers that no longer grow or bloom. The book also teaches that children's misconceptions about death can lead to problems.

Some children confuse death with sleep, especially if they hear an adult refer to death using one of many euphemisms such as "eternal rest" and so on. As a result of the confusion, the child may begin to be afraid to sleep. The same can happen if the child hears that someone has died of illness.

Preschoolers cannot tell the difference between a serious illness or a simple cold. When someone close to the family dies, everyone needs time to absorb the loss, even young children. Even if they do not understand the full meaning of death, they realize that something serious is happening. If we openly show our pain, tears and sadness to children, without expressing weakness, they will understand that death is a loss that is deeply felt and that it is a process that we all have to go through. It is important help children understand loss and grief, and to share the feeling with them. Our own feelings and attitudes about death and the loss of loved ones are passed on to the child, whether or not we try to camouflage our true feelings. The way we talk and share our experiences with the child may be what they remember the most.

Source consulted:
- Caring About Kids: Talking to Children about Death, prepared by the National Institute of Mental Health.
- NIH (National Institutes of Health).

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