Death is a very complicated part of life that even adults tend to struggle with. There are questions as they relate to the fairness or unfairness of death, question regarding what might happen to the soul, and questions about our own mortality that adults don’t quite understand. Explaining death to a child doesn’t mean that you have all the answers, but that you offer them the best comfort you can. Some of the leading experts have a few recommendations. My own recommendation is that you speak from your heart and the belief that everything will be okay.
Death is not sleep and sleeping does not equate death. While we don’t want to explain to our children that death can be painful and we want to leave them with the impression that death can be peaceful, like sleeping, telling our children that death is like going to sleep forever can be harmful. First, it can give them the impression that falling asleep at night can mean they will die, or that their family members may die if they sleep at night. It also removes the idea of permanency of death, and younger children may feel as though the deceased may magically awaken and come back to them.
Death is a process of life. Death means for some people the end of life and for others it means a new eternal life. Ideas of Heaven and Hell vary by religious orientation, personal beliefs, and spiritual concepts that we each hold dear. It is okay to not know all the answers about death. It is okay to present different belief systems and leave parts of the afterlife a mystery as it truly is for all of us. It is acceptable to explain that different people believe different things about where the soul goes after life is over.
The soul is a mysterious entity even to adults. We understand the concept of a soul, but it’s not something we can describe. This can make explaining any type of afterlife difficult for in a method that a child can really grasp, but introducing principles to a child who is emotionally and intellectually ready allows them to process things in their own way. Allowing children their own processing is positive, provided it is grounded in a basic reality. They may describe Heaven as a place they know or create a magical story about Heaven, and this is fine. They may begin to talk about how God can do anything and God can bring Grandma back to life if He really wants to warrants adequate discussion.
One of the most asked questions in the wake of death that therapists hear most often is should we bring a child to a funeral? The answer to this question depends on the child, the relationship that the child had with the deceased, and whether or not there is the belief that the child will gain anything from it. Explaining funerals to a child is always a good idea. Allowing them the option to participate in the process of saying goodbye can be very healthy.
Most people expect children to cry right away when they are told about the death of someone they love. Some children do but other children do not. This may be in part because they haven’t understood what has happened or it may be because they are looking to the adults in their life to know how to respond. It is okay to allow children to see some tears. It can be a little frightening for a child to watch a parent or adult cry, and hurling yourself down on the floor in complete agony should not be done in the presence of a child. It is appropriate for a parent to explain that they loved the deceased very much and they are sad because they will miss them.
Explaining death to a child takes a fine balance between honesty and optimistic and hopeful spirituality. Allowing a child to process death and answering their questions is harder than explaining the event of death. Children believe that parents have all the answers and we don’t want to disappoint them, but in all honesty we have our faiths and our beliefs but we can never be 100% sure when it comes to questions of death and mortality. Questions regarding a child’s mortality become even harder. It is okay to place their death far off in the future, rather than presenting the option that anyone can die any day of the week. We are not trying to scare children, but give them as much honesty as is helpful to their own processing.
Some children will accept the terms which are laid out while others will questions death, God, the existence of angels and Heaven and the soul for weeks or even months after the event. Patience tends to run thin only when the answers to the questions are not obvious. It gets difficult when the only answer a parent continuously has is, “I don’t know.” When children are asking questions that can not be answered, it is okay to explain various theories to them and discuss possibilities.
When we are explaining death to a child, we can not allow our own fears and uncertainties to cloud the answers we give their questions. Simultaneously, we can not allow our preparedness to force them into questioning the spiritual world. Allowing a child to lead in this case is fine, as long as they are expressing their thoughts feelings and hopes (or not expressing them in some cases) in an age appropriate and healthy manner.