When the people we love pass away, it is an immensely difficult challenge for us to cope with. Regardless of how old we are, death just doesn’t get any easier to understand or comprehend. What presents an even more trying time, is when someone who is coping with loss themselves, then has to also help a child understand the notion of death.
What do well them? How do we tell them? How much do we tell them? When do we tell them?
These are often the questions running through the minds of parents and guardians when they find themselves in the position of confronting a child with the reality of death and the finality of it. And while there is no straightforward answer to these questions, there are certain things that help make the process easier and more manageable.
When a pet or family member is ill and unlikely to recover, it can often make a huge impact to discuss the reality of mortality in advance. While they may not fully understand it all, it will help them acknowledge the finality of death. Helping a child understand in the days or weeks leading up to the passing of a loved one will often help them have time to process and ask questions, thus aiding them in what they’re able to understand.
When it comes to tone, it is also important to convey the seriousness and emotionality of passing. They will read your emotions and tone, and it will become clearer to them how to act appropriately with such a topic. Making light of the situation or trying to keep them from being sad by playing it off as light could be more damaging to them later when they try to comprehend similar situations in the future.
Healthy coping mechanisms should be encouraged; acknowledging it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be upset, and it’s okay to want to talk about it, all promote a healthy, normal emotional state. This is something that helps set the tone for handling with loss in a healthy way that continues into adulthood. Modeling the appropriate behavior for a child’s earliest experience with death guides them with learning to behave appropriately themselves.
Children are inquisitive by nature, and they will likely ask questions. Some questions might be impossible to answer, while other questions might be straightforward, and others still might need some careful thought. Don’t feel rushed to provide an answer to their questions. Try to preemptively consider questions your child might ask ahead of time, and think through you how want to respond, and how much information you want to give them. You know your child best, so you likely have an idea of what they’ll ask, as well as how would be best for you to respond to those questions. While you don’t want to lie, outright, it’s also important to acknowledge their limited understanding of things, given their age.
While every parent knows their child and what’s best for them, it can be confusing and unclear as to how to best approach a difficult topic like death. It’s important that we, as adults, help children learn to understand the world they live in and the good and bad that comes with being human.