Has a beloved pet just passed away? Is an elderly relative nearing the end of his or her life? Or has a serious illness or accident claimed the life of someone in your family? One way or another, it’s inevitable that your child will become aware of the reality of death. This realization can bring anxiety, fear, and uncertainty, so it’s important to have open and regular conversations with your child in order to ease fears, give honest information and reassure your child about mortality.
Take Fears Seriously
When a child realizes that death is an inescapable part of life, they may experience fears and anxiety. This commonly occurs around age six or seven. As an adult, you’ve had many years to learn about death and dying, but to a child who has just discovered the inevitability of death, the feelings of fear can be overwhelming. Don’t make light of this. Listen attentively to whatever your child has to say about their fears. Let them know that you take these concerns seriously.
Your child may have some mixed-up or confusing ideas about death gathered from friends, movies, books or TV. Ask what they know about death already and gently correct any mistaken ideas. Then ask if they would like to know more about the subject. Allowing the child to lead the discussion will help you to know what information will be most helpful, what specific concerns they may have and whether some matter-of-fact explanations may help dispel anxieties. If you are planning to attend a wake or funeral for a loved one, be sure to explain to your child exactly what to expect.
Your child may be concerned about whether you or another parent will die soon or about their own eventual death. Accidents and unforeseen illness are part of life, and you can be honest about that, but you can also honestly say that most people live to about 80 years old. When you talk to your child about death, emphasize that you intend to be around for a long time — at least until your child is all grown up — and that they’re very likely to lead a long, happy life.
Religious? Use Those Resources
Many religious denominations have specific, comforting beliefs about death and afterlife. If you are religious, your leaders or fellow congregants may be able to help you have conversations with your child about death. Most pastors, priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders have years of experience counseling people on these topics and are happy to assist families who are navigating difficult conversations.
Use the Power of Storytelling
Sometimes, children don’t really want or need an information-heavy discussion. They want reassurance and the knowledge that others have experienced death and grief. Good stories that include depictions of death and a grieving process can help children know they are not alone. For young children, try the beautifully illustrated Island Boy by Barbara Cooney, which includes a touching funeral for a well-loved grandfather after a long and adventurous life in coastal Maine.
Another picture book, Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie de Paola, shows a little boy interacting with his grandmother and great-grandmother and relates how he is comforted by the sight of a shooting star after the death of each “Nana.” For elementary-school children, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is a classic tale of friendship and loss, as Wilbur the pig meets and befriends Charlotte the spider, only to lose her at the end of her natural life cycle. Books for older children include Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, in which a boy develops an unlikely friendship with a stray dog, and then must face the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize him after he injured and infected while defending his family from a rabid wolf. Another good choice is Anne of Green Gables, a coming-of-age tale about an orphan in maritime Canada, who loses her gentle and caring adoptive parent when he suffers an untimely heart attack.
Expect a Grieving Period
It’s completely normal for a child to take a while to grieve a loved one or a special pet. This grieving may take different forms, including tears, silence, talking a lot about death, or sharing memories of the one who has died. If your child wants to talk, take those conversations seriously and give them all the time necessary. If your child is more withdrawn, respect that reaction. It’s okay to grieve in different ways, and you can tell your son or daughter that, too. As the child experiences this period of sadness, don’t forget to support his mental and physical health. Maintain healthy sleep habits and use relaxation techniques to support the body and mind through this stressful time.
There’s no escaping the simple fact that death visits everyone and touches every family. Have honest, reassuring and compassionate conversations with your child and help prepare them for the process of grieving.
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