All young children have some experience with death. They may have lost a pet, seen a dead bird or squirrel, watched TV coverage of war or a tragic accident, or overheard their parents talking about death. They also hear about death and dying in fairy tales and movies. Developmentally, preschoolers can’t understand the permanence of death.
Whatever the circumstances, talking to a child about death is difficult, especially if you’re grieving. You may feel overwhelmed by your own sadness and unable to meet your child’s needs. In addition, speaking about death forces parents to confront their own questions and fears, and reminds them of their mortality.
Even when parents aren’t mourning a personal loss, a child’s questions can make parents uncomfortable. “Why did he die?” “Will our cat wake up?” “Why couldn’t the doctor make him better?” “What happens to people after they die?” Although there are no easy answers, when explaining death to a three to five-year-old, try putting it in terms they can understand, “When people die, they don’t move anymore.” “When dogs die, they don’t bark anymore.”
If your family has experienced a loss, the most important thing you can do is talk to your child and comfort her. Find out what she thinks and, if necessary, correct her misconceptions and reassure her. Let her share her feelings. She may also want to talk about her fears that you or she will die. “I think you will live a long time.” She may also tell you, “I’m not going to die!” There’s no need to correct her if she says this. Use the opportunity to just listen. Her understanding of death will change as she gets a little older.
Some children don’t talk at all about their loss. If your child shows no sign of mourning, or if she seems to be coping too well, either she’s too young to express her feelings, or she may be holding her feelings in. If she’s four or five, you can probably talk to her about the person who died and help her express her sadness so her feelings don’t become overwhelming. Let her know that although the person she loved has died, his or her love will never go away.
It’s often difficult to know if a young child should attend the funeral of someone she was close to. This is a decision family members must make depending on their culture, religious practices, and beliefs. Other considerations are the relationship a child had with the person and the child’s age. It’s sometimes better for a child to be with her parents than to feel excluded or frightened at home. If you take your child to a funeral, explain (to your four-or five year-old) what the funeral will be like. Let her know that people will be sad. “Aunt Jan is crying because she’s sad that Uncle Alex died.”
If she doesn’t want to go, respect her decision. One five-year-old told her parents, “I don’t like funerals, and whenever you ask me if I want to go to one the answer is NO.”
As she struggles with her feelings, remember that the feeling of loss can last for weeks, months, or even years, depending on how close she was to the person who died. With time and help from you and others, your child will gradually come to terms with her loss.