At some point in every child’s development, often around the age of four or five, they develop an interest in death, and will ask questions about the topic. This is a sensitive subject that must be approached carefully, because unless the child’s questions are answered in an appropriate way, they may become frightened.
Death is a mystery that holds fears for us all, and it is normal to worry about the people we love dying and leaving us. Parents often try to avoid having conversations with their children about death and dying, feeling that in this way they are protecting them. In fact, the opposite is the case. It is important for children to receive accurate and age-appropriate information about this important topic, so that they can process the information and assimilate it into their worldview. Children are usually most afraid when they do not understand something. In the absence of reliable information, they will make up an explanation on their own, or process their fears in the form of nightmares, tantrums, and anxiety.
Children generally respond well to logic. When discussing death and dying with a child in the context of a more wide-ranging conversation about aging, you can explain that, when someone gets very old, their body gradually starts to get tired, and things stop working. Eventually, when they are very, very tired, they fall asleep in a way that means they will never wake up. They do not need their body anymore, so their loved ones bury it or cremate it, and will remember them fondly forever.
If your family is also part of a faith community, your religious faith may also provide some context within which death and dying can be discussed. Depending on your faith background, at this point you can introduce concepts such as the afterlife, heaven, etc. However, it is important to do so in the context of also explaining in simple, but accurate, terms what happens to a person’s body after they die.
It is much more difficult to discuss death and dying with children in the context of talking about the death of young people, death from violence, and so on. Obviously, these topics are distressing for us all. However, children will inevitably overhear items on the news, or conversations between the adults in their lives, and will want to know more. Rather than hushing them or changing the topic, it is important to address it in a calm and reassuring manner that will ease their fears and show them that it is always OK to ask Mum and Dad about the things that are upsetting them.
When children express fear and anxiety about death and dying, these emotions should be treated with respect, rather than dismissed. Listen to the child, provide reassurance, and help them to develop the tools that we all need to live in a world that can be a scary place at times.
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