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Death is an integral but difficult part of life. How do you tackle it with your children?

Straight-Talk: An Advised Approach

Psychologists nearly unanimously agree that a "straight-talk" approach to death and dying is best. When you use flowery language such as "he went to sleep", "she has gone to heaven", "grandma is in a better place now", or "they passed on", you may leave your child facing many unanswered questions. Without a semi-scientific explanation of what death means, you also risk leaving your young children with a fear of going to sleep or a fear that the same could randomly happen to them for no reason. 

The general recommendation is, then, to use words such as "dying", "dead", and "death", rather than euphemisms. Explain to young children that death means a person's body stops working and they will be gone from this world forever.

Your kids may ask many questions, regardless of whether they are generally curious about the concept of dying, have recently experienced a loss, currently have a dying loved-one, or are gravely ill themselves. Don't be afraid to convey your own beliefs about what happens after death to your children (though know they may believe differently as well!), don't be afraid to acknowledge that this is a hard topic for you to discuss, and don't be afraid to admit that you don't know the answers to some of the questions your kids ask. When the discussion becomes hard, say so but continue to answer. Make sure that your kids know that when they want to talk or have questions, they can always come to you. This way, they will know that they will not have to deal with these very hard feelings all on their own. At the same time, give them a break from hard topics and just play, eat, and cuddle. 

Finally, some parents prefer to start off with basic levels of information and to follow up on those conversations simply by answering a child's questions. So long as you make it clear that you are very willing to answer all questions, this approach ensures that your child will get the exact amount of information they need — and no more. Be sure to also listen to your kid's requests to change the subject, however. 

Should Children Visit Dying Loved Ones And Attend Funerals?

This, too, is a contentious topic, something that comes from the perception that children should be shielded from the fact that death happens, and shielded from difficult life experiences in general. However, both visiting a dying loved one and attending a funeral can offer a child the ability to say goodbye and to achieve closure. In order to make these experiences cathartic rather than traumatizing, here are some tips:

  • In the case of a dying loved-one, always ask them whether they would like to see the child first
  • Tell your child what to expect from the experience in as much detail as they ask for
  • Tell your child in no uncertain terms that it is not only OK, but perfectly normal, to be upset, to cry, to grieve
  • Ask your child whether they would like the chance to visit a dying loved one or to attend a funeral, and respect their wishes if they say no
  • If you do go, talk about the experience together afterward

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