Describing Loss of life in a Child’s Conditions

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Describing Loss of life in a Child’s Conditions

Be honest with kids and encourage questions. This can be hard because you may not have all of the answers. But it’s important to create an atmosphere of comfort and openness, and send the message that there’s no one right or wrong way to feel. You might also share any spiritual beliefs you have about death.

A child’s capacity to understand death — and your approach to discussing it — will vary according to the child’s age. Each child is unique, but here are some rough guidelines to keep in mind.

Until kids are about 5 or 6 years old, their view of the world is very literal. So explain the death in basic and concrete terms. If the loved one was ill or elderly, for example, you might explain that the person’s body wasn’t working anymore and the doctors couldn’t fix it. If someone dies suddenly, like in an accident, you might explain what happened — that because of this very sad event, the person’s body stopped working. You may have to explain that “dying” or “dead” means that the body stopped working.

Kids this young often have a hard time understanding that all people and living things eventually die, and that it’s final and they won’t come back. So even after you’ve explained this, kids may continue to ask where the loved one is or when the person is returning. As frustrating as this can be, continue to calmly reiterate that the person has died and can’t come back.

Avoid using euphemisms, such as telling kids that the loved one “went away” or “went to sleep” or even that your family “lost” the person. Because young kids think so literally, such phrases might inadvertently make them afraid to go to sleep or fearful whenever someone goes away.

Also remember that kids’ questions may sound much deeper than they actually are. For example, a 5-year-old who asks where someone who died is now probably isn’t asking whether there’s an afterlife. Rather, kids might be satisfied hearing that someone who died is now in the cemetery. This may also be a time to share your beliefs about an afterlife or heaven if that is part of your belief system.

Kids from the ages of about 6 to 10 start to grasp the finality of death, even if they don’t understand that it will happen to every living thing one day. A 9-year-old might think, for example, that by behaving or making a wish, grandma won’t die. Often, kids this age personify death and think of it as the “boogeyman” or a ghost or a skeleton. They deal best with death when given accurate, simple, clear, and honest explanations about what happened.

As kids mature into teens, they start to understand that every human being eventually dies, regardless of grades, behavior, wishes, or anything they try to do.

As your teen’s understanding about death evolves, questions may naturally come up about mortality and vulnerability. For example, if your 16-year-old’s friend dies in a car accident, your teen might be reluctant to get behind the wheel or even ride in a car for awhile. The best way to respond is to empathize about how frightening and sad this accident was. It’s also a good time to remind your teen about ways to stay safe and healthy, like never getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking and always wearing a seatbelt.

Teens also tend to search more for meaning in the death of someone close to them. A teen who asks why someone had to die probably isn’t looking for literal answers, but starting to explore the idea of the meaning of life. Teens also tend to experience some guilt, particularly if one of their peers died. Whatever your teen is experiencing, the best thing you can do is to encourage the expression and sharing of grief.

And if you need help, many resources — from books to counselors to community organizations — can provide guidance. Your efforts will go a long way in helping your child get through this difficult time — and through the inevitable losses and tough times that come later in life.

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