EPISODE 16

How To Talk To Young Children About Death

Whether we like it or not, our children will ask us questions about death. Perhaps a pet they loved has died or a member of the family or they saw something on TV. How can you help your child understand death in a way that is appropriate for their developmental stage? In this episode, I’ll share with you many recommendations for how to address such a difficult topic, things you can say, things that are not recommendable to say and how you can help your young child to integrate his/her fear and questions about death. 
Check out the show notes for the episode for a list of books for young children that you can read to your child that can help them understand death, in an age appropriate, friendly, and simple way: coachkaremi.com/podcast/16/en

  • Hi everyone, and thank you for joining me in this new episode of The Emotional Inheritance of Parenting show. 
  • Today’s topic is not a happy one; in fact it’s a very challenging one for any human being, not just for parents or children. 
  • Today we’re talking about how to help young children understand death. 
  • I know, you must be thinking, oh god, let me change this one and listen to something more upbeat. 
  • I get it. Who would be in the mood? But the truth is, we’re never gonna be in the mood for it, and yet, our children are gonna hear about it, maybe see it (if a pet has died for example), maybe they’ll see something on TV about death, and they’re gonna have questions, and they’re probably going to be scared and curious. 
  • So let’s equip ourselves with some knowledge about how we can best show up for our kids when they come to us with questions or worries about death.
  • Today’s episode is gonna help you as a parent of a young child – a child ages 0-7, 0-8) to help your kid understand death.
  • So let’s get started.
  • Perhaps your child’s pet just died, or a family member or a close friend of the family passed away or they just saw something about death in a story in a book. 
  • You can be sure your kids are gonna ask you questions. 
  • What do we say? How do we say it? 
  • Do we distract them from the topic? Definitely not. 
  • First, the most important advice is to take an honest look at how we view death. Basically, how do we explain it to ourselves because if we don’t have it clear in our own minds (and not that we have to have all the answers, nobody does, that’s completely okay), but what I mean is if we don’t have a clear idea of how we perceive death, then we’re going to be doubting whether to say this or that, and then we’ll say one thing to our child, then another that contradicts it, and all because we’re not really clear on our views, and our views, whichever they are… are gonna absolutely get transmitted to our children. 
  • Our kids our going to absorb much more how we approach death, than any beautifully packaged answer we give them about it. 
  • That’s why it’s important – before approaching the topic with them – to take a moment to become aware of our thoughts about death and how we feel about it. 
  • For some of us, our perception and explanation of why death occurs and what happens after, will come from some conclusions we’ve come to, and for others, perhaps if you have a religion that guides your understanding about death, then your faith will be a big part of how you view death and how you explain to your kids. 
  • Now, as you know our kids are gonna ask us questions such as, “why do people die?” “Are you gonna die?” “will my doggy come back after it died?” “what does that mean, to die?” “Is he asleep for a long time?” “Where do people go after they die?” “why is grandpa getting buried?!” 
  • So many questions, some of which are gonna come out of genuine curiosity, and others are gonna come from fear. 
  • One thing to keep in mind is that while the topic of death can be not only uncomfortable, but also very sensitive, especially if we’re grieving the death of a close family member or friend, it’s important to help our children feel that they can come to us with any fears, questions and worries about death. 
  • So let’s get practical. What are some things you can do if say, for example, you have a 3-year-old whose grandfather has just passed away, and perhaps your 3-year-old was close with her grandfather, and she’s asking about him, and when is she going to see him again.
  • It always helps to allow young children to ask questions and to not distract them from their pain around a topic like this.
  • One helpful thing you can do is to help them process death by telling the story of what happened in a way that they can understand at their developmental stage. 
  • In this case for the three-year-old whose grandfather has just died, you can tell the story of what happened through the use of puppets…you can give her a version of the story that she can handle, and allow her to ask questions throughout, pause the story, rewind, repeat parts of it that she doesn’t understand.
  • And this recommendation to tell the story of what happened, to pause, rewind, repeat parts, it comes from Dr. Daniel Siegel’s book, The Whole-Brain Child. 
  • As I’ve mentioned before in the podcast, Dr. Daniel Siegel is a world-renowned neuropsychiatrist, including pediatric psychiatrist. He’s written many academic books and books for parents around the topic of brain development in children and how to communicate with kids in a way that is aligned with their developmental stage.
  • So it’s very important for us as parents to offer our children a narrative, a description of death that they can process at their young developmental stage. 
  • And using puppets or stuffed animals to tell the story of what happened is very helpful for young children. They can see something being acted out instead of listening to our long sentences we often use as adults. 
  • When we’re using puppets or stuffed animals, we’re more mindful of making it a story, of making it digestible and of pausing, like we would pause a story book if our kid had a question. 
  • We can pause the story if we see our children expressing in their look a confused expression or if they show they’re scared, if they have questions
  • Through the use of puppets or stuffed animals we can use voices that are more like a movie and you’ll see young children completely attentive to see what happens next. 
  • We can rewind parts of the story, repeat a part they had a question about. 
  • And this is recommendable not only because we communicate with young children at a level that they can understand, but most importantly, because we’re helping them to integrate their emotions with the verbal explanations we’re giving, and this is key.
  • We’re helping them to integrate their fear about death in a way that helps them gain understanding about it
  • You know how in other episodes I’ve talked about how the right side of our brain is mainly in charge of processing our emotions and non-verbal language and our left side of the brain or the left hemisphere is what processes verbal communication, so words.
  • So by telling the story of what happened, you’re helping your young child to integrate their right side of the brain with all the emotions (say fear about death), you’re helping them integrate that with the left side of their brain through description with words. 
  • And you’re doing it at their pace, pausing, rewinding, repeating. 
  • You’re helping them to make sense of it all, to digest it, so to speak, to gradually understand it. 
  • This helps children to process their fear, to understand something that’s new to them, rather than just live with the emotions, with the scared feelings stuck inside of them. 
  • It helps to prevent the concept of death from becoming traumatic for them. 
  • Now, if you, yourself are going through the process of grieving the death of a close family member, doing this for your child could be very difficult for you as a parent if you’re feeling intense emotional pain, so in this case it could understandably be very difficult for you to be in a place emotionally where you can support your child with her feelings, her confusion, her questions, so have patience and compassion with yourself if you’re grieving too.
  • Try to find a moment where you feel you can talk about the death of your loved one. 
  • But do find the time when you can to explain this to your child because talking to young children about events that may feel confusing or events that are very difficult to understand is very healthy, so they can process them, integrate them in their young minds and in their feelings. 
  • When children can process the death of a loved one with our description, our explanation of what happened, and our emotional support, then it doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience for them. 
  • And I want to say, you don’t have to use puppets or stuffed animals; you can simply talk to your child. That’s okay. Just make sure your language is clear about what happened.
  • This is very important. 
  • If your child is a toddler, they’re not going to understand that death means final, end of a person’s life or an animal’s life.
  • But starting at the preschool age, say 3-5 years of age, you can begin to explain clearly what death is and what happened to someone or to an animal.
  • Using the example of a 3-year-old’s grandfather having passed away, you can say something like this, “Grandpa was very sick. He was very old and his body wasn’t working well any more. His body stopped working and shut down. When that happens, it means the person died.”
  • Stop there. See if your child has any questions.
  • If your child asks you, “what’s going to happen to him now?” you can tell her something like this: “Grandpa is dead. This means he’s not alive anymore, so he won’t talk or laugh or walk anymore. His body shut down, and is dead, and his body is going to be buried in the ground.”
  • If your child shows a confused expression about someone being buried in the ground, and asks you why grandpa’s being buried, you can say something such as, “he won’t feel anything because he is dead. The body is like a home where grandpa lived. And since the body is dead, it’s going to be buried in the ground.” 
  • And depending on your culture or your religion, your family may do something different with the body of a person after they die, but this is just an example of one explanation to give if in your family people are buried. 
  • If your child is going to the funeral, Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist, and author of several best-selling parenting books, she recommends saying to your child something like, “you will be able to see his body and you will see that it doesn’t really look much like him because his wonderful, loving, laughing spirit is not there.” 
  • You can remind your child that grandpa is not present in the body anymore, so the body isn’t feeling anything.
  • Dr. Laura Markham also recommends encouraging your young child to speak about the loved one who has passed away and for children to have a small object of their loved one to keep. 
  • She also mentions an important point for a child this young, that “the biggest danger is that she will feel he has abandoned her, so you will want to be sure that your explanations constantly reassure her that he loved her, and that love continues after someone dies, meaning that his love will always be there inside her heart.” 
  • I think this is such an important point, Dr. Laura Markham raises because young children tend to make everything about themselves.
  • It’s normal; it’s perfectly natural. They’re in a developmental stage in their lives where they’re self-centered. It’s all about “me, me, me.” “My toy, my stuffy, my book.” 
  • And just as they’re focused on themselves for those simple things, they focus on themselves for other, more complex things, such as when they’re yelled at, they internalize the message, “I AM bad.” Not “mommy must be in such a bad mood.” They take it to mean something about themselves. 
  • So we need to keep in mind as parents that young children could internalize that the death was because of them, that somehow it could have been their fault, maybe because they said something rude to grandpa at one point, or because they got very angry with grandpa. 
  • So, as Dr. Laura Markham describes, it’s very important to reassure children and remind them that their loved one’s death wasn’t anyone’s fault, it wasn’t our child’s fault; it wasn’t our fault; it wasn’t grandpa’s fault. 
  • Grandpa was very old and very sick and his body stopped working. That’s why he died. 
  • Reassuring young children about this will help them move on to understanding death better.
  • It also helps young children to tell stories about their loved one that has passed away and for us as their parents to tell stories too, stories that make us laugh and stories that make us cry. It’s all okay. 
  • If your child asks you why everyone is crying so much, you can explain that family and friends are very sad because they loved the person who has died so much, and since we will never be able to see him or her again, it makes us feel sad, so we cry, and it helps to cry.
  • One thing to keep in mind, when talking to your child about death, is to follow their lead. Follow your kid’s lead answering questions he or she may need to ask.  
  • Sometimes we over explain or we talk about things they don’t even have questions about, so take their lead and see what they want to understand. 
  • Now, in terms of things not to say, Dr. Laura Markham offers very valuable recommendations. 
  • For example, don’t say that someone who has died or an animal that has died went to sleep for a long time. You don’t want to give your child fears about going to sleep. Make sure young children know that death and sleep are completely different things. 
  • Also, don’t say the person “just went away” because this can cause separation anxieties. What you want to do is reassure your kid that their loved one didn’t want to leave them.
  • If you have a particular faith that guides your explanation of death to your kids, of course go ahead and share it, but it’s important to know that comments such as, “He was such a good person that God wanted him close” can cause a lot of confusion for children.
  • It could make them believe that death is like a prize you get for being a “good” person – and good is defined differently by every person, so it could lead to confusion for your child. 
  • Also, saying things such as, “she’s in a better place” could lead kids to believe that being dead is better than being alive.
  • Remember, kids, especially young children, take things literally, so they don’t know that when we say, “she’s in a better place” we mean that the person isn’t suffering anymore. 
  • They can take that to mean that death is better than being alive because we said, “she’s in a better place,” so it’s important to be very clear in our choice of words. 
  • Something that’s very helpful for children, and honestly for us as well, is to show children that life and death are part of a cycle and that it’s part of nature. 
  • Show your children that nature is all about cycles. Trees grow from tiny seeds that get water and sunlight; they grow leaves; the leaves are green and beautiful, and then in the fall those leaves begin to fall from the tree and they die making room for new leaves to grow on the tree. 
  • And those leaves that fall on the grass become part of nature in a different way. They become part of the soil in the earth. 
  • It’s all a cycle. Spring, summer, fall or autumn, winter, and it starts all over again. 
  • We’re born, we grow, we have a wonderful life, we get old, then we die. 
  • Using nature as an analogy can be so helpful and it helps children to know that we don’t just observe nature and its cycles, we’re PART of nature. 
  • Humans and nature are all part of life. 
  • Life and death are all part of a cycle that nature has for all of us, for animals, for people, for plants, for all of us, and that the best thing we can do is enjoy our lives, live our lives fully and follow our interests and our passions and learn about others, and about the world, and have a great time.
  • And it helps to not just talk about nature, but if you can, go out in nature with your family, with your children, and show them the trees, their cycles; show them how animals all interact with each other as part of a cycle of nature, show them how everything is changing in nature and growing, and then after a long time of growth, then dying and making room for new life. And that we’re all part of that.
  • Something very important that I’d like to highlight is that all these recommendations about what to say, what not to say, helpful things we can do with our children, are NOT intended to have the goal of taking our child’s pain away. 
  • Our children have every right to feel the pain of losing a loved one, a family member or friend or a pet they loved. 
  • They need to be given the full permission to feel their sadness, to feel the pain, to grieve. 
  • These recommendations are intended to help young children UNDERSTAND death and to gradually process it in their young minds and integrate those understandings with their feelings. 
  • But in no way are we looking to remove their pain from them because then we’d be unconsciously suppressing feelings, and we don’t want to do that. 
  • It’s understandable to not want our children to feel any kind of pain, physical or emotional pain. 
  • But it’s important to not try to suppress their sadness, their anger, their pain in general or distract them from their grief because we’d be making them bottle up all those feelings. They wouldn’t go away. 
  • Grief, as you know is a process. There are stages of grief – starting with denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
  • And our children need us not to try to protect them from difficult feelings, but to accompany them and support them in those feelings. 
  • Our children will feel sad; they will cry and feel very sad if they were close to the person who has died or if the pet they loved so much has died. This is completely normal and okay. 
  • Parents often worry that the death of a loved one can become traumatic for young children. 
  • Here I’d like to share with you what Dr. Gabor Mate describes about trauma: “Trauma is a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically that then interferes with your ability to grow and develop. It pains you and now you’re acting out of pain. It induces fear and now you’re acting out of fear. Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you. Trauma is that scarring that makes you less flexible, more rigid, less feeling and more defended.”  
  • So as you can see, even though we can’t control what happens to our children; we can’t control if someone in their lives dies. We can control how WE respond to that death; how we help our children to make sense of it, the narrative, the story they walk away with from that experience. 
  • It’s what happens inside our children as a result of what happens TO them (for example their grandpa dying or their pet dying), it’s what happens INSIDE them that determines whether death becomes traumatic or not. 
  • And that’s where we come in as mom and dad. What matters most is that we give them our emotional support. 
  • After we’ve helped them to understand death, our children really need us to accompany them in their pain.
  • They don’t need us to fix their feelings or to change their feelings. 
  • They need us to be with them in the feeling of sadness and to accept them with their sadness.
  • That last step in the stages of grief – acceptance – can’t come if we don’t allow ourselves and our children to feel the grief.
  • If we allow ourselves and our children to feel it, then the pain gradually feels less painful. 
  • So give your children the opportunity to process their grief, their sadness. 
  • Give them plenty of opportunities to ask questions and to talk about the death of their loved one. 
  • It also helps young children to draw pictures to express their feelings. 
  • And yes, in a moment when they’re calmer and open to shift moods a little bit, you can absolutely also talk to them about how amazing it is that we’re alive!
  • And how important it is that we’re together now and that it’s such a great thing to enjoy life! To love each other, to do so many things that fill our hearts with joy, and have a great time in our lives, that there’s so much to enjoy, to live and to learn!
  • And before I close the episode, I want to tell you that in the notes for this episode I included a list of books you can read to your children about death.
  • They’re for young children and these books can really help them understand, in an age appropriate, not scary but friendly, simple way, to understand death better, and the books can also help you and your child have a conversation around death. 
  • I include them here in the show notes; you’ll see the list of books with links. 
  • Thanks for tuning in to this episode. I hope you found it helpful.
  • If you haven’t already, please follow me on Instagram (@coachkaremi) where I post announcements about upcoming interviews I’m doing, resources I offer and valuable content on conscious parenting.
  • Thanks again, and I’ll be here next week!

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