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"Death is hard for children to understand," many people will immediately say when you bring up the topic of discussing death and dying with kids. The truth, so often, more closely resembles this — death is difficult, death is difficult for adults to understand, the death of a loved-one hurts, and death is difficult for adults to discuss with children. Death is also an integral part of life. Unfortunately, no matter how much they hate the thought of discussing death and dying with their children, most parents will — at some point or another in their kids' childhoods — have to find a way to do it anyway.
Growing up — the daughter of a father who died a premature death — I knew of one case in which the dad of a boy whose mother had died of cancer found discussing death with his son so hard that he just didn't. "Just a little while longer," he must have thought, "I'll delay telling him just a little bit longer." The story went from "we can't visit her right now" to "she's been moved to another hospital that's much further away", for months. I don't know how he eventually found out that his mother was in fact dead, but I think I can imagine the betrayal he must have felt when he discovered he'd been lied to all that time.
How do you do it, though? Not only will you try to find ways to make the conversations you'll have age-appropriate, how you engage in these talks also strongly depends on the situation you find yourself in.
How Do Children Experience Death?
Children are, from a very young age, aware that death occurs. Let's not fool ourselves there. They've seen dead animals — even if just mosquitoes — and encounter human deaths in books and on television. They hear you talk to your spouse and others about a great many "adult topics" that we think go right over their heads too, and are so often capable of understanding much, much more than we give them credit for.
This is pretty crucial: though kids know much more than we think they do, they also sense when a topic is uncomfortable for us, when it's "taboo", and they may well adjust by not asking very important existential questions they are struggling with. When they feel they can't ask you, kids are left to deal with these issues alone. As parents, our first duty to our kids when they face dying and death is, then, to lay aside our own discomfort and to commit to discussing it fully.
Experts hold that children's understanding of the meaning of death progresses with age:
- Toddlers and preschoolers may not have any grasp of the concept of permanency in general, and as such may see death as temporary as well.
- Children aged between five and nine do understand that death is permanent, and they may also cognitively be aware that all life eventually comes to an end, but aren't yet able to contemplate their own mortality.
- From age nine onward, children begin to deal with the meaning of life and death in a more philosophical way, pondering both the meaning of life and what — if anything — might happen after death.
Though knowing this can be helpful, it is also important to see children as individuals with their own experiences. A child who has already experienced the death of a loved one will have a deeper understanding of the meaning of death than one who hasn't, for instance.