Death is a part of life. It’s also a part of life that we don’t always know how to talk to our children about. To understand how to explain death to our children, we first need to conceptualize how we ourselves view it.
Toddlers, preschoolers, elementary-aged children, tweens, and teens will all view life — and thus, death — differently due to their developmental differences alone. For instance, toddlers generally don’t understand that death is a permanent condition — even if death has been an experience in their brief life history. What toddlers do understand is the emotions those around them are feeling.
During elementary-age, children often begin to understand that death is permanent and all living things eventually die. It’s important to note that elementary-age children can be heavily influenced by the belief system of those around them.
Teens — although they may have experienced loss, can understand death’s permanence — may have a hard time understanding their own mortality, often feeling as though they are exempt from it. To complicate matters, it’s highly likely that if you have more than one child, your children will be at different stages of their lives.
As children move through each stage, their questions will likely range from asking when they’re going to see a deceased loved one again; to where their deceased loved one went; to questions that involve the physical process of death. These are all very hard questions, especially because we want to be truthful and reassuring to our children; but the truth of the matter is that no one really knows.
Much like children change their views on death as they age and gather life experience; as parents, so do we. Our past experiences with death, our evolving religious and/or spiritual views or lack thereof, and our fears regarding mortality all contribute to how we explain death to our kids. With that said, crystalizing what we believe — and what beliefs we want to instill in our children — is the first imperative step.
Like most things in life, the unknown can cause great fear and a loss of control. The notion of separation from family and friends can also contribute to the anxiety your child might have regarding death. Additionally, our children feed off of our energy. They can sense when we are fearful, anxious, angry, and confused. That being said, children can sense when we are experiencing positive feelings as well. Often as parents, we think that not having the answers isn’t acceptable; when in fact, it absolutely is.
Furthermore, taking the unknown out of death — even if it means sharing the few things we do know, or feel most convicted about — can be helpful to our children. You can share statements that you feel fairly confident about, such as: “Death is inevitable”; “Death doesn’t mean we go to sleep”; or “Death isn’t a punishment”.
Lastly, demonstrating a healthy grieving process is another helpful way we can communicate with our kids about death. Most of us feel it necessary to hide our grief; however, by appropriately sharing our emotions, we allow valuable life lessons to unfold.
It's important for parents to realize that children of all ages respond to death in unique ways based on age — among other factors. Sometimes talking to our children about death just means that as parents, we foster and create a safe environment where they can feel comfortable, heard, and reassured the best they can be.