Few topics are more anxiety-provoking than death and dying. Paradoxically, helping children talk and learn about death will significantly defuse their anxiety.
Modern society, at least in our part of the world, deprives children of the many opportunities for death education that used to be commonplace. Family members often live hundreds of miles apart instead of children growing up with several generations living in the same house. Kids do not experience what writer and psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described as “Death, the final stage of growth,” as the family cares for its older members at the end of their life.
Often people spend their last days separate from their families, in hospitals, cared for by specialists. For many children the cycle of life and death is out of sight. The meat, fish and poultry we consume are easily foraged from Wegmans, far from scenes of life and death. This means as parents we need to take advantage of opportunities to provide “death education” on what is a basic biological event.
Children go through several stages in learning about death. When our son was 4 years old, his pet guinea pig died. We had a small “service” where we all shared a few memories of Sammy, and then we buried him in the back yard. A couple of hours later I found my son digging up Sammy so he could play with him. Our daughter, who was a couple of years older, was disgusted by her brother’s attempt to exhume his pet and eager to inform him how “foolish” he was for thinking Sammy would come back alive.
Understanding the permanence of death typically marks the beginning of the process of learning about it. Next comes understanding that people die, too. This is followed by the realization that “my parents could die.” Then, typically somewhere between ages 8 and 11, awareness of one’s own mortality dawns, and life is never the same.
In our practice, if we see an 8- to 11-year-old with trouble sleeping, vague stomach complaints or difficulty going to bed or separating from her parents, we always check with the child to see if she is “thinking” about death or dying—and often she is (although she may have failed to tell her parents). A child’s life experiences can accelerate the progress of these stages, but the order of the stages remains fairly consistent.
What can a parent do? Try and talk about death with your children, even if you are uncomfortable. Many parents feel they are “protecting” their children by avoiding talking about death. Try to think of death as an inevitable human experience. It is OK to not have all the answers. Explore the issue with your children and share your family’s beliefs about death.
Here are some suggestions:
There are many terrific books written for children explaining death and dying. Reading a book to your child is a good way to approach a difficult topic. It gives the parent a guided format to follow and it will help kick off a conversation. (Some of our favorites are: Tell Me, Papa by Joy and Marvin Johnson, Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, and About Dying by Sara Bonnett Stein.)
Encourage—but do not force—your child to attend funeral services of loved ones. Explain in advance what the child should expect. Again, books are helpful. We also find it therapeutic to help a child create drawings showing a casket, body, flowers and people who have come to honor a person’s life. Let your child participate with his family on this important occasion, and share and witness the expression of grief and mourning that follows a loved one’s death.
Avoid euphemisms about death when talking to children. Young children are very literal in their thinking. Death is not like sleeping or resting, and be careful about describing death as “someone being taken away.” Refer to the body as the person’s shell. Early school-age children still have “magical thinking,” where they believe their thoughts and feelings can cause events to actually happen in the real world—for example, that their angry thoughts can cause someone to die. Keep this in mind when talking to your young child.
Although death is inevitable, help your child focus on what she does have control over that will help her have a better quality of life and could help her survive longer, such as wearing a seatbelt, eating healthily, exercising, and not smoking.
Kubler-Ross wrote: “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” ■
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.