How to Help a Child Understand Death

  • Listen Actively to learn what the child does and does not understand about death; what vocabulary, sequences, and concepts they is she able to use in questions or descriptions of the events?
  • Ask your child direct, simple questions that focus on full understanding of the event and the ramifications.
  • Respond to what they do and do not understand.
  • Use everyday living experiences and “teaching moments” to discuss the reality that has happened.
  • Answer questions when the child asks. Answer simply and honestly rather than protecting the child from a “harsh reality” and evade the truth. Answer the same questions repeatedly if asked, with patience; your child is processing and weaving together complex concepts that require repetition and context.
  • Temper and adjust your response and answers to reflect the child’s age, experience, maturity, and capacity for emotion and facts.
  • Answer the question that is asked; do not overwhelm with detail, but ask what she heard and now understands.
  • Give the child time alone to reflect.
  • Provide opportunities and experiences for the child to show you what he or she understands or is confused about reglarding illness, death, and dying.  Activities including movies, art, music, writing, or play acting can all provide feedback about how the child is processing information. 

2 thoughts on “How to Help a Child Understand Death

  1. m

    I definitely believe that we must be honest with our children and not shield them from death, but I am having a hard time knowing how to negotiate illness with our young children. Our kids are almost 6, 4, and 5 months old. My MIL was just diagnosed with ALS. I want to prepare them for the changes and the inevitable death of their grandmother, but as I know so little about the disease and because ALS doesn’t have as clear a path as some other illnesses, I am at a loss with what to do.

    I don’t want to overload them, especially since we have no idea how long she has, but I do want to prepare them in some way. Should we hold off talking to them about this until she gets worse? Do you have any advice?

    Reply
    1. Lani Leary

      Understanding and competency surrounding illness, decline, aging, and death is developed over time. Your six-year old will understand more than your 4-year old, but both can be introduced to primary concepts by reading them stories about the subject. You can find a helpful bibliography at http://www.childlife.org/files/GriefBibliography.pdf. From there, you will be setting up the environment so they know that they can ask you anything; their questions will inform you about their level of understanding, and what they need. Answer their questions as they arise and validate their observations, but let the reality of each day be your guide. The specifics of ALS are not important, but teaching them that all people need help at one time or another, and that they can participate with their grandmother, without fear or anxiety, will be the most important lesson you can impart.

      Reply

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