Talking to Children about Death

Categories: Care.

Talking to children about death is something all parents have to face at some stage. Like most complex topics, this is a conversation that is best done outside of a crisis, over time, giving the child small bits of information as they need and ask for it. Ideally, adults should speak regularly to children about death as the natural process that it is, and as an inevitable consequence of being alive. However, adults have a tendency to avoid the topic for various reasons, such as their own unresolved fears and anxieties. As a result, when a child is faced with a crisis, such as the death or imminent death of a friend or family member, or perhaps even their own possible death, adults must find the best way to approach the topic without causing too much anxiety.

Adults naturally want to protect children from feeling the hurt that comes from knowing that someone they care about is very sick, and may die. However, even very young children can sense when something is wrong within a family and experts agree that they are better able to cope with such a situation if they know what is happening. The challenge is to provide children with information that is honest, at the right time, and appropriate to their age and stage of development.

Providing children with information soon after a family member is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness also gives children the benefit of working through their feelings at the same time as other family members. Children who are told the truth will feel less isolated, they will learn to trust the adults as well as having their own feelings validated.

Children’s cognitive understanding of death changes as they grow older and experience more of life. A young child has difficulty understanding a concept such as the irreversibility of death and they may revisit their grief over and over again as their understanding matures. They also do not have the ability to sustain strong feelings for long periods of time so their expressions of grief may be intense and sporadic.

Guidelines for talking with children about death

Here are some guidelines to help you talk with children when a parent, grandparent, brother, sister or any other member of the family is dying. However, don’t hesitate to ask for help from those who have special expertise in working with children and families dealing with the effects of a life-threatening illness.

  1. Find out what the child already knows. If children have not been included in conversations, they may have overheard bits of conversation between adults and formed their own thoughts and ideas. Make sure you clear up any misunderstanding and correct any misinformation. Young children who still have ‘magical thinking’ may feel that they are in some way responsible for what is happening to their loved one or to themselves. Make sure they know that they have nothing to do with what is happening.
  2. As simply as possible, tell the child what may happen in the near future and what plans you have in place to deal with any eventuality. Give them the information in simple terms and check that they have understood correctly.
  3. Reassure the child that no matter what happens he or she will continue to be loved and cared for. Tell them who will care for them and what changes may take place in their daily routine.
  4. Include them in future conversations when appropriate. Encourage them to talk to you or another trusted adult about how they are feeling and encourage them to ask questions at any time.


Lessons from Sesame Street

A recent blog, Talking about death with young children: lessons from Sesame Street  written by Kerrie Noonan on the website of The GroundSwell Project [link to: http://thegroundswellproject.com/talking-about-death-with-young-children-lessons-from-sesame-street/ ]reminds us of the need to keep information simple and appropriate to the developmental age and understanding of the child.

The dialogue from the clip runs:

Don’t you remember we told you? Mr Hooper died, he’s dead.
Oh, yes , I remember. I’ll give it to him when he comes back.
Big Bird, Mr Hooper’s not coming back.
Why not?
Big Bird when people die they don’t come back…
Ever?
No, never.
Why not?
Well, Big Bird they’re dead, they can’t come back.

In 1982 Mr Hooper, who ran ‘Hooper’s Store’ died in real life and the producers of Sesame Street decided to acknowledge his death with this very touching scene. This scene provides a lesson in how to talk to our children about death. According to Noonan, the scene teaches her five important things.

  1. Say the words “dead” and “died”.
    They may not be easy words to use but all children need to hear these words first. Using phrases like “passed away”, “gone”, “sleeping” or even “gone to God” and “an Angel in the sky” are confusing for children who need a concrete explanation. Start with the plain facts of physical death (dead means you can’t come back, dead means your body doesn’t work any more) and then add your spiritual beliefs. Like most young children, Big Bird tries hard to grasp that dead means never coming back. Stick to the physical aspects of death first.
    In this clip, offering Big Bird the reassurance that ‘no one will forget Mr Hooper’ and reminding Big Bird of the importance of memories (i.e, our ongoing relationship with the dead) is given preference over talking about spiritual or religious beliefs which can come later.
  2. Go at the child’s pace.
    Young children need time to absorb loss. Big Bird says a number times that he doesn’t understand, even after the finality of death is explained to him. I find it very touching how the adults just wait. They are not trying to fill-up all the silence. They wait for the next question to emerge and then they respond to that. They also calmly repeat the same information about death and resist the urge to make it up as they go.
  3. Share and show genuine feelings – so easy to say, but so hard to do!
    The moment when Maria tearfully says “That’s Hooper, Big Bird, Hooper” is a total tear jerker! In this clip, the adults are not trying to be brave or hide their feelings. This seems to help Big Bird because like most children, it’s only once the adults acknowledge and share their feelings, that Big Bird says “it makes me sad” and he begins to share his.
  4. It takes a community.
    All the adults in Big Bird’s life are working together to help him feel secure.
    They seem to be looking out for each other and at the same time supporting Big Bird. In a perfect world this is what we all need when someone dies. It isn’t always possible but if you can find a small group of supporters in your family, school and community it can have a tremendous effect in helping children feel supported and secure
  5. Just because …
    There is something perfectly wonderful about the exchange between Big Bird and Gordon at the end this scene. Big Bird protesting Mr Hooper’s death says, “… but why does it have to be this way, give me one good reason!”.
    To which Gordon responds: “It has to be this way, because… Just because”.
    Such an honest thing to say in that moment. There is a part of me that wants Gordon to say more and try and explain ‘it’ to Big Bird. I’m glad he doesn’t because in that moment Big Bird accepts it and they all move on.

She ends by reminding us that talking about death with children needs time and it doesn’t need to be complicated.

Read the full blog at: http://thegroundswellproject.com/talking-about-death-with-young-children-lessons-from-sesame-street/

Watch the Sesame Street clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxlj4Tk83xQ

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