FAQ's About Death/Dying and Children
Updated: Sep 6
I should wait to have that kind of talk with my children until I think they're old enough...right?
Having to discuss death and dying issues, like any sensitive topic, can feel quite overwhelming for the helping adult. Whether you are a parent/guardian or a school social worker/psychologist/guidance counselor, you are actually placing the child at a disadvantage by waiting until a significant person has died or is dying. For example, we discuss school life issues with children prior to the beginning of the school year. Otherwise, the child is walking into anxiety provoking situation(s) without any prior knowledge. Discussing death/dying with a child should begin with smaller and less significant deaths such as dead wildlife. If you explain to the child that the animal (ex. raccoon, bird, etc.) is no longer living, this opens up an explanation about what dead means and removes any mystery the child associates with death.
I think saying the word "dead" is kind of morbid so I prefer to use the term "passed away." It sounds nicer.
It does sound nicer but it is also quite confusing for children when we use euphemisms such as "passed on" or "passed away." Children are concrete thinkers. This means that when we use ambiguous terms, children cannot understand them and will take the speaker literally. As difficult as death and dying is for adults, it is our responsibility to impart what we know to be complicated aspects of life. With children, it is a matter of reviewing that the five senses are no longer working. This can help children to process that the once living being is now dead. Take the wildlife example from above; if there is a dead bird on your street and the child inquires (or you want to open up the conversation), this is an opportunity to discuss that the bird can no longer feel, smell, taste, touch, or think because the body ceased to function. In turn, the child is more likely to value your honesty and ask questions immediately or later.
My friend told his daughter that when someone is dead, it's like they're sleeping. Is that a good idea?
Repeat after me, "Never tell a child that a loved one who has died is asleep!" As with the examples above, being honest with children about the difference between "dead" and "sleeping" is vital. A body no longer works and a person who is sleeping is resting. They are very different. Sleeping is the body's way of reenergizing itself as it is important for the brain. Without sleep, we feel out of sorts, cranky, and have difficulty with everyday tasks. However, when someone dies, they no longer require sleep as the body ceases to function. Telling a child that a loved one who has died is "only asleep" can be damaging in the end for the child.
My partner and I are at odds over whether our children should attend my mother's funeral. Who's right?
It isn't a matter of right vs. wrong. Look at it this way, if your child has a relationship with your mother, why not explain the funeral process and invite the child to attend. This way, you are not forcing the child and you are including them in the ritual of death/dying. When we dispel any mysteries they might have in their minds, it can help the child to see that funerals are for the living, not the dead. Funerals are for loved ones who want and need to say their goodbyes. The concept of a funeral goes back centuries and helps loved ones with the grieving process. As painful as the funeral and saying goodbye is, it is important to help us grieve the various emotions that come with living without that special person. If your child is old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve.
I explained death to my child but they keep asking me questions.
That's great that you have taken that step and discussed death with your child. Bravo! Along with that will be moments when, out of the blue, your child might ask a question (even if it's repeatedly) or bring up their special person. You might think this is so random but that's how children's brains work. Children have the moment and then move on. As random and repetitive as it might seem, it's good your child is opening up to you as it is showing they trust that you will provide the truth.
My school district is struggling with how to discuss death and dying. What can I do?
School social workers/psychologists/guidance counselors are doing their best to provide a multitude of services to students. As discussed above, it is best to discuss death/dying before a significant death occurs. Same for schools but given that death is considered a taboo topic, there is hesitance to open up the proverbial "Pandora's box." On more than one occasion, I have met with school administrators and faculty to provide training on how to work with students where death/dying are concerned as well as how children grieve and how to best support them. I am available for consultation and welcome any inquiries from school districts.