They have been fortunate that no one in their own immediate family had died, and therefore she had never really discussed death with her daughter. I could sense that she was dreading the discussion, just as much as some parents dread discussing sexuality with their children. Interestingly, both of these issues are “facts of life”.
Death is a reality for everyone, but children come to understand death in different stages, which are appropriate for their age and development. There are often occasions to discuss death with children even before the death of a relative, or friend, such as “the plant died”, “ the bug got smashed and died” or the squirrel was hit by a car and died”. You may not even realize it but young children have some concept about death from hearing those simple facts. Over time the discussion about death becomes more detailed.
Whenever you have to have a discussion with a child about death it is sad. Even very young children feel sad and grieve, but in different ways than adults. When beginning the discussion about death it is appropriate for a parent to start off with a statement such as “Mommy has some sad news.” or “daddy and mommy have been talking about your Uncle Bill being seriously ill and we are worried that he might die”.
Do not avoid discussing illness and death, as children are more fearful of the unknown than having the truth told to them, in an age appropriate manner. It is also important that you do not use terms like “went to sleep” or “went away” or “passed on” as you do not want your child to fear going to bed to sleep or be concerned that you will “go away” and not return. Just like discussions about sexuality and the body, use appropriate terms related to dying.
Younger children may not understand the finality of death and have “magical thinking” that the person will “wake up” or come back later on. It is not until children are about six to nine years old that they comprehend death and the permanence of death.
Be truthful and honest with your child and try to explain death in concrete terms that a child may understand, by telling them “that your heart no longer beats” or “a person doesn’t breathe anymore”. At the same time, it is important to keep the conversation brief and simple in order that children may listen and then ask questions.
Answer their questions to the best of your ability, and if you don’t know an answer you can say, “I just don’t know”. Some of this may be related to your own religious beliefs. It is a balance between avoiding giving too much information and also encouraging your child to express their feelings and to reassure them of their fears.
Unfortunately, most parents will have to have discussions about death on more than one occasion. The discussion will change a bit each time, as children get older and the circumstances surrounding a death may be more complicated.
There are also many great books to read with your child. My favorite for a younger child is “Heaven Has a Floor”, by Evelyn Roberts. I still read this and am comforted by the story.
That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.