Angela was a foster parent for eight years and has four daughters, one in which is adopted.
Explaining Death to Children
Death is hard to deal with, no matter what age one is. Just because a child does not appear to be grieving does not mean they are not processing the event. Unlike adults who go through the typical stages of grief, children may exhibit distress differently.
Grief and Children
How do children react to the news of death?
It is common for children not to appear as if they are reacting to a loss, especially after the initial shock. But that doesn't mean they aren't feeling anything. Typically, a child may grieve for a moment, then go right into playing, which doesn't mean they are not dealing; it just means they are dealing with it in their own way.
A young child often is unable to communicate what is on their mind. Although school-age children can remember, they are still children and often would rather play than think about what hurts. Therefore, don't be surprised if their thoughts of grief show up in an overreaction to a toy taken or becoming needy or even more obedient.
With my daughter, she insisted on being near me at all times and repeated the word "mama" continuously.
How to answer a child's questions about death?
The most important thing about answering questions about death is honesty. Do not avoid telling them the truth. If they want to know, they have the right to know. Also, remember the child's age, and make your answer age-appropriate. Keep answers short and simple. It is also crucial only to answer the questions they ask. Giving a child too much information, especially all at once, may overwhelm them and cause undue stress.
For the most part, my daughter was a happy-go-lucky child and very well-behaved. She would randomly ask questions regarding her father's death, usually while I was driving. Maybe my eyes being away from her helped her to feel like she could ask.
7 Tips for Helping a Child Understand Death
1. Be Age-Appropriate
It is imperative to stick with age-appropriate information. Especially in cases of suicide or homicide, it can be tricky to know what to say.
I was able to maintain that honestly throughout her childhood. As she gets older and asks more challenging questions, I answer what she asks, but no more. When she is old enough to ask the right questions, she will be old enough to know the truth. Yet, I use tact and love to answer each question, especially issues that are hard to hear the answer to.
2. Avoid Euphemisms
Phrases like "passed away," "went on a trip forever," or "moved to heaven" will only confuse a child. Use direct words like "died." If you use other, softer words, they may not completely understand what happened. A child may fear going on a trip or even think of heaven as a bad place because people don't come back from there.
3. Avoid Oversimplifying the Illness That Led to the Death
Saying things like "they went to the hospital and died," or "they got sick and died." These statements may cause a child to fear all hospitals or sicknesses. If the loved one who died was sick before passing away, explain their particular illness. For instance, if they had cancer, say they had cancer. If they had a heart attack, say they had a heart attack. If your child asks what that is, explain that it's a severe illness that causes the body to stop working. By being direct, you leave less room for fear and misinterpretation.
4. Don't Assume You Know How They Are Feeling
One thing important to realize is young children don't know how to anticipate the future. They may not be completely aware that someone is gone. They may hear the word death and see a dead body yet await their arrival.
5. Don't Force Conversations
It would be best if you didn't force conversations in hopes they will understand. It will upset them more, and they may react negatively due to information overload. Forcing them to talk when they are not ready or giving them more than they can understand is detrimental.
6. Don't Underestimate Their Understanding
That being said, don't assume they won't understand (so be careful what you talk about with them in earshot). If you think a conversation about a loved one's death is over their head, you will be surprised at what they do understand.
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7. Be Respectful of Their Grief
Also, be respectful, even if the loss is someone you didn't care for but the child loves, like your ex-husband, ex-wife, etc.
What About Suicide or Homicide?
In more complicated cases, where the child is not old enough to handle death, like in the case of a suicide or a homicide, a child psychologist suggested to my daughter's biological aunt to say it like this: "Your daddy's body is broken, and he died." If they ask why or how reaffirm that the body won't work anymore." Dependent on religious beliefs, you can encourage your child to talk to their loved one at a cemetery or in prayer but explain that they won't be able to speak with their body anymore. Also, make sure you know when a child psychologist is needed.
Be careful with leading questions like "Are you sad?" Instead, ask questions like "How are you feeling?"
Talking to Children about Death
Let Them Talk, and Listen to What They Say
One thing important to remember is to let your child do the talking. If they want to ask questions, encourage them, answer them, and be polite, but let them dominate the conversation. If they want to be quiet, don't force them to talk. You may ask, "I notice you're quiet; what are you thinking about?" Avoid leading questions like, "Are you thinking about (so and so)?" or "Are you feeling sad." Often this kind of question may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they think they should be thinking about their loved ones, they may say yes, even if they were not. If they think you were sad, they may act sad even if they were quiet due to something completely unrelated.
Also, don't become offended if they say things like, "I wish [deceased loved one] was here, not you." That doesn't mean they don't love you or wish you were dead; they are expressing their feelings of missing that person. Let them say it, and don't admonish them for being hurtful. Until they entirely comprehend death and its finality, they won't realize how harmful what they say is.
Don't Be Afraid to Talk About the Person Who Died
I know it was very easy for my daughter to call me "mama" because although she had a mother, her mom was not her primary caretaker. It took her a little longer to call my husband "daddy." I do remember the day that she started calling him daddy was the day that I put her birth father's pictures around the house. I got them from her aunt and let her decide where to put them. We had one in the living room, one in our hall of fame, but most in her bedroom. She slept with them for weeks. I would ask her questions like, "What did he do with you before bed?" She loved talking about him! Often, this would lead to questions about his death.
Above All Else, Love and Care for Them
The most important thing is to let a child know that they are loved and cared for. Don't just love them with words. Love them with action. Be respectful that they are grieving. Keep things consistent. Don't allow destructive behaviors that you wouldn't allow before, but take those opportunities to talk. If they don't recognize the reason they are doing something wrong is that they are grieving, let them know that you love them, but the behavior is unacceptable. Don't give them a free pass to bad behavior just because you don't want to cause more pain. Instead, teach them how to express anger, grief, and sadness in healthy non-destructive ways.
A child might become needier. I know my child would sometimes say my name at least once every minute. One day, my daughter was having a hard day; my husband counted how many times she said, "mama," in a half-hour. It was 39 times. It does get overwhelming but be patient. Cuddle, talk, and let them know you love them. If it's not realistic to cuddle at the time, let them do an activity near you or show them signs you love them in other ways. If you're in the car, then hold their hand.
Lean on Others
Leaning on others is especially important if you as well are grieving. By leaning on others, you allow your child to see that they have a secure support system. The more people you allow to help through this challenging time, the more secure your child will be and the less stress you will go through. Though it is vital to help your child through grieving, don't forget you need to care for yourself. You can sufficiently care for a child if your needs are lacking.
Even if you are not grieving, like in my case as a foster parent, then adoptive mother, there were days when her clinging and constant "mama" became overwhelming. I would pick up the phone and ask if I could visit or invite someone over. The distraction would cause her to relax and give me a breather so that I was more equipped to respond when she had another clingy moment. Don't feel guilty for these moments. Bringing other people over who loved her and wanted to play with her let her know that she was loved. That she may have lost someone who she loved and who loved her, but she still had others.
If a child is grieving, don't be afraid them talking to a counselor. If you feel a stigma, be careful of projecting that onto the child. There are many ways that a psychologist can reach a child that a parent cannot. For instance, if a child knows their father is grieving, they may be afraid to mention their mommy because it upsets daddy. To a psychologist, they would not have that same fear. Psychologists are trained to identify and address issues that you may not be equipped to.
Life is hard; death is even more complicated. Help your child with the tools you can. Be direct. Be honest. Yet, keep things age-appropriate. Recognize if they need to talk to someone or if you need help. Also, know that you will get through this, and so will they. Let them grieve.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz
Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 25, 2012:
She is doing very well. She has less and less bad days!
Dianna Mendez on April 25, 2012:
I was glued to the screen reading your hub. What a story of tragedy, and yet full of hope. You handled the situation very well and I am sure your daughter will continue to heal through the coming years. Love your advice and points on this topic. Voted up, up!
Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 12, 2011:
I hope that some of this information helps someone out there! I know I have a lot to learn on the subject matter myself. :)
Fluffy77 from Enterprise, OR on April 12, 2011:
Very useful and important subject of life, my Mother and I both work at the local elderly home here in our small community. Death happens around us all the time, we live with and care for my disabled Dad and dying Grandpa. We do our best to explain to our little family members when they visit us. It's not always easy though, thank you so very much for this. Knowledge is power, after all.
Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on July 14, 2010:
Thanks for the great compliment! I think it does soften the blow to an adult who understands death at a deep level. But children do in fact need to hear it directly. They often think people can just come back to life, and have not yet understood the finality of it.
noorin from Canada on July 14, 2010:
Amazing hub, a lot of the ideas wouldn't have crossed my mind especially using the euphemisms. Thought they actually helped but now that I came to think about it , it is kinda of confusing.
Thanks for sharing examples of your personal life. =)
Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 22, 2010:
Cakes on June 22, 2010:
Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on June 21, 2010:
I think I'll check them out soon, and maybe I will have to put a link to your hub from mine. :)
tom hellert from home on June 21, 2010:
thankks for your fan mail- i have the "ace up my sleeve when talking about Death because... i was``.. so I can speak from REAL experience- ~~~But ~i think your `hub h`ere would `be a good wa`y`` to go about it if ya don't have the inside scoop like I do- i weote 3 Hubs about it`````````...But your hub ``is ``very good. As for the guy with the gold fish-not a big deal either way- tell your husband as long as the tank is covered and a stand alone tank the cats will look but grow tired of itt -we have 2 cats- an open bowl=wet cat paws and a freaked out fish...
Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 18, 2010:
I am trying to get my husband to agree to pet fish for my daughter, but, I haven't gotten him convinced. He thinks our cats will eat it.
Jamiehousehusband from Derbyshire, UK on April 18, 2010:
I wouldn't have done it with a larger pet - thanks for that.
Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 17, 2010:
I have to giggle at your decision. I'm not sure what I would have chosen. It is a hard choice. In a way, I think it would be easier to explain death if they experienced it with a pet first and realized the permanence. Hopefully you will never have to encounter such a conversation. They are harder than you can imagine.
Jamiehousehusband from Derbyshire, UK on April 17, 2010:
Well put hub about such a difficult subject - my 7yr olds goldfish died whilst she was at school this week and I confess here to having replaced it to save her pain, feeling guilty now as to whether I should have, maybe it was just more expedient for me...