Explaining Death to a Child

As a parent, your natural instinct is to always try to protect your children from any emotional pain or suffering. This parental urge to shield your children from upset can be difficult to balance, especially when you yourself are struggling emotionally. It is important to always be honest and upfront, as talking to children about death can help to open up important conversations and feelings.

You may be thinking, ‘when is the right time to explain death to a child?’. Unfortunately, there is no right time to broach the subject. Choosing to do so will vary for every family. However, there is one certainty, and that is that children of all ages benefit from being prepared in advance for the death of a loved one.

How can children benefit from knowing?

Talking to your children about death will undoubtedly be a tough conversation. However, it will benefit you both in the long run because:

  • It fosters an environment that encourages open and honest communication
  • Children are able to receive factual information
  • Leaves less opportunity for children to get imaginative
  • It enables children to process and make sense of the physical changes that are happening to the person who is unwell
  • Creates an opportunity for the ill family member to play a role in preparing the children for the possibility of their death
  • Allows for extra support systems such as school counsellors to be put into place
  • Children have the benefit of grieving with the adults in their lives, instead of alone
  • It gives children the chance to say goodbye in a way that feels comfortable for them.

Why withholding information can be detrimental

Your child is most likely able to sense when information is being withheld from them, which often results in them worrying more. Hearing the news directly from you, rather than overhearing conversations, is much more beneficial for your children. In fact, children benefit from learning such news directly from close family members they trust.

As a parent, you can’t control the flow of information outside of the family, therefore, it can be difficult to stop others from mentioning the news to your child. There is a trust issue as well. If children discover that their parents or guardians knew about a loved one’s impending death but intentionally didn’t tell them, they may have difficulty trusting their caregivers in the future. This creates additional challenges in the child’s grief process.

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How to talk about death with young children

Timing plays an important part in your children’s grieving process, although the right moment will always be hard to determine. It is completely normal to never feel like there is a perfect time to undertake the task of explaining death to a child.

However, there are some strategies that families, just like yourself, have found beneficial. These include:

  • Ask your children to describe what they already know about the situation, you may be surprised at how much they already know.
  • Reassure your child that talking about death does not increase the chance of death occurring. Some children believe that they are responsible for good and bad outcomes.
  • It can be beneficial to ask children how much information they would want to know. Do they want a summary or full-on details? Each child will need different amounts of information and this will vary depending on age.
  • Create an environment where children feel comfortable asking questions. It is important to make sure you answer questions honestly.

An honest and open environment

When parents choose not to inform children of impending death in the family, they usually have the best of intentions. Often, they are just trying to protect their children from emotional pain. It is common to feel that it may make things worse if your child is upset, but it is important to remember that it is best to talk to children about death in order to prepare them for the passing of a family member.

At Willow Grange, we believe that children need to be involved in the grieving process. That’s why we actively encourage children to visit the home and spend meaningful time with their loved ones. Our fully trained and compassionate end-of-life team is on hand to provide families with the support and guidance they need at this difficult time.

Explaining death to a child is not an easy feat, and we know just how difficult those conversations can be. If you’d like to find out more information regarding how to talk about death with children, please get in touch.