Coming to terms with our own mortality is a difficult task for adults, and a terrifying one for children. Developmentally, children begin to understand the impermanence of life and the finality of death between the ages of 4 and 8. Initially, children will be curious, ask questions, and play out death scenes from video games or movies. As their comprehension grows, children often become fearful of losing their loved ones, and as a small child, the thought of separation can be extremely distressing. Calming your child who is coming to understand death and dying can be a futile task; below are a few things to be mindful of at such times.
1. Use plain language
When explaining your beliefs regarding death, be sure to use plain language. Be direct and honest. If your explanations are too detailed or vague, your child will be confused, and you run the risk of them losing trust in you as a source of information about the world and their lives.
2. Avoid the word “sick”
When talking about someone dying, whether it is a person or a pet, be sure not to describe their death as the result of an illness. Telling children that someone has died because they were “sick” introduces new sources of anxiety. Children do not know the difference between someone being sick with the cold, or sick as a result of a terminal illness. Telling children sickness causes death results in increased anxiety when they or someone they love becomes sick, regardless of the cause of the illness. When you talk about death, be sure to separate it from illness. That is, death is the result of the body stopping, and not working anymore.
3. Limit your explanations to the questions they are asking
Fully understanding the concept of death for children is a process that takes time, since their understanding of it shifts alongside brain development. You will need to match the information you provide with where they are at in terms of their understanding. You can do this by asking them what questions they have, and asking them what they need from you. Respond only to the questions and needs they are expressing, and save further details for when they tell you they are ready.
4. Don’t expect to be able to reassure them immediately
Coming to terms with our own and others’ mortality takes time and volition. You may not be able to speed up this process, and you certainly cannot change reality. It is common for parents to attempt to calm their child with a discussion of probability (e.g. “yes mommy will eventually die, but we hope that doesn’t happen for a long time”). While this can be helpful for some children, for others, timing and probability is irrelevant. Although we know that in the future our children will be independent and better equipped to deal with our death, this is not something children can easily imagine, as it is outside of their experience.
5. Help your child self-regulate after the conversation
Sometimes during these conversations children will perseverate, and the conversation can go on for quite some time if you don’t interrupt it. If you find your child repeating the same questions or statements, despite reassurance and your answering their questions, you may need to interrupt the conversation. In doing so, it is important to tell the child their thoughts and feelings are important, and that you understand them, but that continuing the conversation at this time is not helpful. Ask your child to put their fears into a box, or tell one of their dolls to hold on to the fears for them, until another day. Then, engage your child in a distracting task such as reading a book, talking about their day, or making plans for a family outing. When they bring up the topic on another day, be sure to take time to have another discussion with them.