“Mummy … when’s daddy coming back?" How to talk to your child about death

Knowing what to say to your child about death can be hard.

To this day I have never found a better approach than describing death This way:

"The body stopped working".

 

When young children are involved directly in the loss of a parent, sibling or significant other, it's important to be:

  • Honest
  • Kind
  • Truthful
  • Age appropriate.

This can be easier said than done! 

Why is saying ‘the body stopped working” a good thing to say to a grieving child?

Like many situations in life, the reactions and questions we hear from kids can be:

  • Inappropriate
  • Funny
  • Confronting
  • Insightful
  • And so much more.

It's exactly the same when it comes to a young person who is trying to make sense of a death.

To kids the word forever holds very little meaning. That is if they have any understanding of it at all.

This answer is not deep, nor is it profound. For a child however it does seem to provide some level of understanding.

What do you say if they ask 'Why? 

I can recall lots of different reactions from little people who I am trying to help understand death.

This is how it can go... 

Example 1  I say: "Grandpa’s died – his body stopped working", they say..."why?"

I say “because his heart was tired, it has been beating for a very long time, and it just couldn't go on any more”.  

Example 2 I say: "The body stopped working", they say..."that's OK, just take them to the doctor".

I say “The doctor can’t do anything now, the body stopped working, he just couldn't go on any more”.

Example 3 I say: "The body stopped working", they say... "How long until it will start again".

I say “Sometimes the doctors can make the body start again, but Grandpa’s body just couldn't go on any more."

Example 4 I say: "The body stopped working", they say... "Where is it now?"

I say “His body is still with us, and we will have a special time when we all meet together – at a funeral.  It’s not scary, but it can be sad. So we tell some stories to help remember Grandpa and then we get to say goodbye.  You will always have your memories of Grandpa”. 

Example 5 I say: "The body stopped working", they say... "Can I go outside and play now".

While these responses are varied and more than OK, they are in many ways a little detached from the young person.

In some ways this is a good thing as we need to acknowledge their level of understanding and comprehension.

Kids seem to accept "the body stopped working" more readily than many others as it is something they experience in growing up. From toys breaking, and not working anymore to …... the family pet dying.

Some things you should really avoid saying

Just as important as knowing what to say is knowing what not to say.

In my experience some of the following answers should be avoided when discussing death with your child:

“Daddy got sick and died”

 This causes young people to fear, sometimes with paranoia about ever becoming sick.

“Daddy went to sleep and never woke up”

This could create a fear in your child about going to sleep at night in case, just like daddy, they never wake up.

“Daddy went to hospital and never came home”

If (or when) the day arrives that your young child needs to go to hospital, the memory of what happened to daddy in a hospital can create paralysing fear.

“God took Daddy to heaven”

This might create anger at God.  Why did He take my daddy, I hate God!

Does the age of your child matter?

Age appropriateness is paramount here.  

What level of understanding can your child receive at different ages?   

  • Children up to 3 years old:  Generally the concept of death will not be understood 
  • Children 3 to 5: Will have a limited understanding. They will have the knowledge of being away from someone and then returning (E.g. going to Kinder)
  • Ages 6 to 8:  Still limited but may include aspects outlined for 8-12 years old
  • Ages 8 to 12: It is generally accepted that most children have developed a mature concept of death by the age of eight or nine years
  • Teenagers: Bereavement can be complex. There are physical and mental changes to the body. Bereavement presents an added layer to an already difficult picture.

Perhaps the approach of offering small amounts of information at a time can be beneficial.

The use of images, books and storytelling and even play therapy can enhance and simplify what needs to be communicated.

The simple tips offered above will help answer that hard question. There is so much more we’d like to share with you…much more than I can put in one article.

Oh My Grief will be exploring this topic in a lot more depth in future blogs.

In our next post (Part 2) we'll give you some advice about how to cope when an important family member dies.

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By Steve Morrison.