How to Talk to Children about Death

How to Talk to Children about Death

Giving Examples of a dead plant can help in initiating the conversations.

Common phrases used for the people who have died are “they have become a star” or “they will always be in our hearts”. Sure, this could be a way to give children hope and soften their landing, but it diminishes a significant learning opportunity. Grief and bereavement are extraordinarily strong emotions and natural to the human condition, it is wrong to think that children do not go through this or do not have an understanding of them. Talking about death with them is important to provide a secure and healthy outlet for difficult emotions (Ann Chadwick, 2012). Beating around the bush robs children of an opportunity to learn about attachment and love. Experience is the best teacher for grasping concepts.

Cultural Influence in Understanding Death

No dialogue happens in a vacuum, it is influenced by culture and ethnicity. The Indian ethnicity is not one single entity but rather includes several religious belief systems like Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism to name the major religions and many diverse tribal religious belief systems. Broadly speaking Hindus, Christians, and Muslims believe that death is not the end, rather it is a transition, either to the realm of God (an afterlife), into another body, or damnation (hell, as in Christianity).

In most religions, funerals are an occasion to remember the life and legacy of the deceased. Religious systems are not the only source of meaning. Christel Manning, a professor of Religious studies at Sacred Heart University in her article published in the Harvard Dignity Bulletin says, “Saying that religion helps people find meaning in the face of death does not prove that meaning is absent without religion”.

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail”, “there is no heaven or afterlife for broken down people; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark”.

Stephen Hawking who declared himself as an atheist told the Guardian

Based on the religious beliefs of most major religions in India, death is not the end. It is merely a rite of passage for the soul, to God, an afterlife, or another body. For people who replace religious belief systems with another source of meaning (like science), talking about death does so in a very matter-of-fact manner. In both scenarios, there is a strong reason to talk about death in concrete terms, as a process of life itself. But still, in many people’s experience, it is a topic much shied away from.

The Need for Acknowledgement

The main reason for this is that death is associated with loss of connection and attachment, sorrow, and grief.  We do not want to upset others and ourselves by talking about death. Furthermore, human civilization to this date has built its goals in a rather ambitious manner. Not acknowledging that the experience of these goals will cease to exist in our consciousness the moment we die. We go on living life as if we are immortal. This seems to be a systemic hindrance to having an open dialogue about death.

children about death

Parents often tell their children, “Heaven is a happy place, where Daadi is with God and at peace”. But when the child sees people crying inconsolably and sad for days, he or she may be really confused about what has happened and What are the appropriate ways of responding to such a situation. “We had to put your pet to sleep” or “Daadu has gone into deep sleep” are some of the other techniques parents use, but here the child may express fear of going to sleep because they think they won’t return from sleep like their pet or relative.

Furthermore, using the word “sleep” to denote death may confuse the child about the difference between sleep and death. The existing strategies seem inadequate in talking to children about death. Before considering alternative strategies, it would be helpful to know why we must talk to children about death in a meaningful manner.

Benefits of talking about death
1. Open conversations

For a child who has lost their parent, pet, friend, or loved one, addressing death itself with trusted adults provides a space for children to ask any questions they may have and provides closure to some extent. Losing a loved one at an early age can make the child less trusting and unhopeful about the world and the future. At this juncture, an adult needs to step in and try to regain confidence and hope in the child. Talking about death to children can equip them with a realistic understanding of the world and the people close to them. This is essential for healthy psychosocial development.

2. Fostering Trust and Family Values

Openly discussing death and encouraging questions can create a trusting and open relationship with parents. This can go a long way in teaching children how to channel their thoughts and emotions healthily with people they trust. It can also be an opportunity to educate children about the belief systems of the family. This also allows them to think about the beliefs and question their relevance and meaning in their own lives.

Negative Perceptions Surrounding Death Conversations

Some notions are such that talking about death causes more stress than relieves it, especially if you are talking to the person who is dying. However, research tells a different tale. A large-scale study conducted in the United States took 1131 terminally ill patients and their caregivers. They were interviewed about death, dying, and bereavement. It was seen that 88.7% of the interviewees experienced little or no stress from the interview. Only 1.9% reported experiencing a great deal of stress, while 7.1% reported experiencing some stress.

It was concluded that better communication was a crucial part of providing better care (Ezekiel, Diane, Pam Wolfe, et al, 2004). There are also few published researches in this area, much less in India because ethical boards are concerned that these topics may distress the participants. However, that only stigmatizes conversations around death, even though it is shown to have more beneficial than detrimental effects (Ezekiel, Diane, Pam Wolfe, et al, 2004). Children are more curious, and they do deserve concrete answers, especially if they are terminally ill. Another study suggested that end-of-life discussions have benefits for patients and caregivers. This study did not find any evidence indicating that engaging in these discussions caused significant emotional distress. It also did not lead to psychiatric disorders. On the contrary, those who did not have such discussions experienced poor quality of life near death (Wright, Zhang, Ray, et al 2008).

Alternative strategies for talking about Death

Citing the clear benefits of talking about death we need more effective ways of talking about death to children. These techniques should be concrete and unambiguous and address the child’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions to death. Strategies could be used based on the cognitive abilities of the child. Understanding a child’s level of comprehension before introducing them to the topic is crucial. Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development could serve as guiding posts. For when to introduce different kinds of concepts and examples concerned with death.

1. Giving Demonstrations to illustrate life and death

The following techniques have been proposed by Ann Chadwick in her book “Talking about Death and Bereavement in School: “How to help children 4 to 11 to feel supported and understood”. These have been justified with corresponding stages as given by Piaget. For young children (4-7) it could help to correct wrong perceptions in the context of death. Adults could elaborate on the difference between a dead and living flower/plant to illustrate life and death, and what it means for the flower/plant. Children are more likely to remember demonstrations of such examples. 

2. Giving Concrete Examples

According to Piaget’s preoperational stage (2-7 years), children can use and understand language. They can use pictures to represent objects but they are still thinking in concrete terms. Therefore, giving concrete examples becomes important because they will most likely be unable to think of metaphysical concepts like the spirit or soul which is said to leave the body on dying.

children about death

By age 7 up to 11, in the Concrete operational stage children’s skills of distinguishing the concrete from the abstract are becoming more refined. They can understand the concept of ‘never returning’. Thus can be said that ‘not returning’ is one of the features of a dead person. This would cause sadness, but it is healthier than being confused or in denial. Their egocentrism is reduced by this age and they can consider and think from other people’s perspectives.

They are now able to understand when others are sad and respond appropriately. At any stage, it is advised to encourage questions from children about death and not shame them for asking such questions.

3. Teaching about Death in School

From another perspective, we can also consider incorporating discussions about death into the school curriculum when addressing children. Jackson and Colwell in 2001 championed this approach on requests from schools seeking advice. In their article “Talking to Children about Death,” they suggested that the current curricula in British schools contain opportunities for discussing the topic of death. The mummification process of ancient Egypt is a potential topic that could spark curiosity among children.

Unassumingly even Mathematics is proposed as a context for talking about death: calculating the average of death, average lifespan, and so on. The primary benefit of employing this approach is that it normalizes the subject of death and loss within the daily curriculum. Citing the benefits of talking about death, the individual has more to gain than to lose. There is a need for more research in this area in India. Potential areas of research could be The effect of talking about death on the mental health of the individual (patient, caregiver, or any other kind of participant), Cognitive stages of development in children and talking about death.

We live in a largely death-defying, death-denying society, but it is a truth of life and it will happen someday.

Do’s and Don’t’s for Death Conversations with Children
Tell the truth about what happened right away.Do not hide grief from the child.
Give concrete details about what happens when someone dies- they cannot drink, eat, talk, walk around etc.Give concrete details about what happens when someone dies- they cannot drink, eat, talk, walk around, etc.
Make sure to use the words dead, passed away, etc.Do not change the subject in front of the child
Be prepared for varied emotional responses. No two children respond the same way  Do not hesitate to laugh and cry openly with your child
Share information in dosesDo not push the child to resolve their grief before they are ready to do so
Prepare the child for life without the loved oneDo not beat around the bush when bringing up the subject
Talk about thoughts and feelingsDo not sugarcoat the news
Prepare the child for what they may see in the funeral/serviceDo not change your daily routine (routine really helps instill a sense of security and normalcy for the child)

I feel like such dialogue not only addresses the emotions surrounding the topic but also reveals many significant insights into what we think about life itself and its various facets that we value. It raises important questions like “What do we value in our life?” “How would we like to die?” “How do we want people to remember us once we are gone?”. It is natural to feel sad. By inquiring about the reason for sadness one could improve their self-awareness as it could take you down roads of questions like “What does attachment mean?”, “what does it mean to love someone?”

These are all difficult questions and may take a lifetime to answer. There is no one answer for all. The search is to find answers that resonate with our deeply held values and beliefs.

“There can be no single thing that can teach us more about life than death”

Arianna Huffingto

Leave feedback about this

  • Rating