Sooner or later, every child learns about death and understands that it separates loved ones somehow. Parents must explain kids openly what death is -appropriate to their age- to let them build a healthy view of it. This will ease their grief after the loss of a close one and fight back anxiety.
How do children think about death?
Children in the first 3 years of life find death less frightening than other age groups as they lack cognitive skills to understand it completely. Around the age of 4-5, children start to fear death and the loss of their relatives more but they perceive death as a journey that can be reversed. After the age of 5 children begin to learn that death is an irreversible event and exists only for living beings. At the age of 6 or 7, they begin to associate death with illness and old age. At the age of 8-12, children understand that death is the end of life in this world and that a living being who dies will never come back.
How to explain death to children?
In order to explain death to children, parents or relatives must use honest and simple expressions like:
“For all the living things, there is a time when life begins and ends. The period between the beginning and the end is called life. For example, chicks start living when they hatch; they grow up and become chickens; then they grow old and die. This is true for all flowers, fish, cats and humans. None of the living things in this world live forever.”
Which type of explanations to avoid?
Some of the messages may pose danger to the child’s mental health, especially when they are younger. Do never use explanations like:
- God takes those whom he loves very much besides him.
- The deceased has fallen into a deep or eternal sleep
- The dead disappear into the ground.
- The dead person is happier now.
- He/she died because of wrong behaviors of relatives.
- He/she died because of his/her foul thoughts.
Messages telling that death is a punishment can be very confusing for the child. It may cause the child to fear the earth, to sleep and to see God as a punishing authority. Furthermore, such messages may make the child feel responsibility, guilt or anger for the death of a loved one. These feelings can cause the child to lose his/her health.
Tips about telling the loss of a loved one to the child
- It is inconvenient to hide the loss from the child for too long. The child may learn the news from other people in the meantime, which may make the situation worse for you and the child.
- It is also inappropriate to act as if nothing is wrong or to scream and throw yourself on the floor and cry. Trying to control the child’s behavior or directing the child on how to behave at such a time are both inappropriate. Let the children express their own feelings as they prefer.
- The person to talk to the kid should be the person closest to the him/her emotionally. The person giving the news and the child should be alone. Thus, the child can react to the news without being disturbed by the presence of others.
- The child should not be taken away from other grieving family members and sent to another environment immediately after the event. Like adults, children need to be together and share the pain during this period.
- It is inappropriate to take preschool children to funerals or places where the dead are being prepared for the funeral.
- Each family can explain death in line with their own religious beliefs and culture without going into too much detail. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of life after death can be comforting for the child as it brings with it the knowledge that the deceased is not completely gone.
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