Talking to Your Child About Passing On

Death is a topic of discussion that most of us would rather avoid, particularly if it is with kids. Having an open dialog will help them be prepared should it happen to someone close to them. There are important considerations depending on their developmental stage and personal experience.
 
The Although some like this Youtube channel are trying to make it more approachable, the a. Expected life spans continue to increase, modern medicine advances the ability to intervene and fix problems, and death has become largely institutionalized.
 
Not that long ago, people died at home close to their family. This made it easier to understand the relationship between life and death. Adults and children experienced it together, mourned together and comforted each other. It gave children an opportunity to understand how death fits into the fabric of life.
 
If we are open and permit children to talk to us about death, then we can give them needed information, prepare them for a possible future crisis and help them understand that, while sad, it is part of life. We can help them to be more comfortable with the topic, and the shared understanding will put us in a position to help them if they need it.  
 
As any parent knows, even young kids are amazingly observant and perceptive. Avoiding the issue, because we are uncomfortable or don’t want to upset our kids, can result in children creating their own fear of the unknown. If it is too scary for us to talk about, then it must be pretty terrible.
Two main factors to consider.
How we talk to kids about death must consider two main factors; their developmental stage and their experiences. Development is closely tied to age, but each child is an individual and will develop at their own rate. Their experiences can be related to the home environment, situations they have seen or been exposed to, and ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.
 
Kids are exposed to “death” from a very early age whether it is seeing dead insects, birds, or animals on the road. Or, they see it on TV, in a video game or in a movie. These exposures are not real life and usually have less emotional response. Although, I must say that when Darth Vader died my 10 year old son was almost inconsolable with grief. On one hand it was funny (but I didn't laugh), but on the other it showed he has inherited my intense emotion around family. 
 
A situation such as the death of a family pet, is often more personal and can open up many discussion opportunities about the end of life. Talking about the concept and the permanence of death can make it much easier if something tragic should happen to someone close to them.
Considerations for talking to kids up to about age 6
As a parent, it is important to remember that children process information differently depending on their age. So when discussing death, this changes how you approach the conversation.
 
When they are young they are very literal. Their language and comprehension skills do not deal with nuance or euphemism very well. The discussion needs to be in basic, concrete terms that they understand.
 
At this age they may not know what “death” is. The word and the reality are not yet connected. Death might be best explained in terms of “not working”. Just like toys, sometimes people’s bodies stop working and cannot be fixed.
 
If you use vague wording around death like “went away” or “in a better place”, this can be very confusing for someone that processes literally. They might ask, or be thinking, “OK. When are they coming back?”.
 
This is a good illustration of how well-meaning attempts to make death easy for kids can backfire. It’s not easy being a parent sometimes.
 
The permanence of death can be a difficult concept for a young person. They lack the perspective to see life and death as part of the process. If someone does pass away (there’s that vague language again) they may ask many times when they are going to return. Be patient and answer their question using a clear, straightforward approach.
 
Changing perceptions at ages 6 - 10
Kids at this development stage start to, but often don’t fully, understand that all livings things die and that it is permanent. Death is an external concept that doesn’t necessarily apply to them and they don’t think about their own mortality.
 
They can still be unemotional about death. To them it is just a thing that happens. I remember when my son was young, he looked at me one day and asked, “When you die, can I have your car?” Uh, sure you can...you funny, little, heartless person.
 
Death becomes real at ages 11+
As children grow and mature, the concepts of permanence and mortality continue to develop. Teenagers develop a clear understanding that every person dies. This may naturally cause them to ask questions about their mortality, have concerns about their vulnerability to harm, and search for meaning in life. Some teens will engage in risky behavior to confront their fears and demonstrate their “control” over life. That is worth talking about with them. Even though their first response could be "everything is fine".
Wrap up
Regardless of the child’s age, encouraging questions and dialogue will help reveal their thoughts and feelings toward death. Showing that you are open to talking about it will reduce the “boogeyman” effect.
 
Some basic considerations:
 
  • Treat their opinions with respect.
  • Be sensitive to their desires to communicate when they are ready
  • Maintain an openness that encourages communication
  • Listen to, and accept, their feelings
  • Give honest explanations
  • Answer questions in simple, age appropriate language
If you would like more insight into the topic, this paper by the National Institute of Health is quite comprehensive.
 
Have you found an approach to this sensitive topic that worked well with your kids?