In Theory: How to explain death to a child?
The death of a loved one is always a difficult pain for adults to bear, but for children, it can be even worse. And trying to find an explanation for why a friend, relative or pet no longer is around can be very tough for parents.
Advice available online includes explaining death in literal terms, as young children tend to see the world in black and white, and to avoid euphemisms such as “he’s gone to sleep,” or “he’s gone away.” Explaining that the person’s body “stopped working” or that he died because he was very old seem to be the most appropriate strategies. If the person was ill, it’s best to emphasize that he or she no longer is in pain.
In religious households, the family’s shared faith often can be a great benefit to children, but in homes that aren’t particularly religious, suddenly introducing religious concepts can have a frightening effect on kids. Telling a child that a loved one has gone to live with Jesus, or is with God now, can lead to the child asking why the dead person wants to be with Jesus or God more than his family. Saying that the death was “God’s will” can be very scary, as children might wonder when God will come for them. Even telling them that the person is in heaven and is happy can send mixed messages, the “happiness” of the deceased contrasting with the grief of the living. In contrast, one parent on a “mothering” message board told her children that we’re only in this life for a short time, but after we die, we live forever and one day we’ll see the deceased again, a post that garnered many positive responses.
Is there an easy way to tackle the job of explaining death to a child? Should it be done before the death of a relative or pet?
Explaining the process of illness, dying, and the death of a loved one such as a grandparent or a beloved pet to a young child is a tender and difficult moment.
Depending upon the age of a child, I have used the example of the caterpillar’s life cycle. The message is that life never really dies, it just changes form. At one moment in the caterpillar’s life, it is in a cocoon and with a little time, it emerges into the beautiful new form of the butterfly and is able to fly away on the breeze with brightly colored wings.
The death of a sibling or grandparent can be a teachable moment about spiritual life. Usually, children over the age of seven can understand the concept that life continues, even when our physical body gets sick, ages and dies.
I have also explained in memorial services that the body is like a coat that we wear. In time, the coat gets worn out and we choose to take it off and leave it on the bed. Our spiritual body looks very much like our physical body, but it doesn’t need a coat anymore. It is a body of light.
The main thing to remember when discussing death with children is to be calm and explain that just like birth, death is a normal process of our experience as human beings, but that there is so much more to us than our physical bodies. We are spiritual beings and when we go into the light (or heaven), we will see other family members, friends and pets who have gone on ahead of us. It will be like a big family reunion.
Rev. Jeri Linn
Unity Church of the Valley
Every child is different and every family situation is different. As a general rule, we should prepare children for life with a pattern of truthful explanations of the world. One necessary life skill for young people to learn is the acceptance of the role of death in the world.
Explaining death can be a positive opportunity for adults who are teaching children when they are ready for this life skill.
Learning about death is a difficult lesson. Adults should take steps to make the experience as smooth as possible. For example, preparation through noting other examples of death in nature might be helpful. Most people learn better if given an action as part of their learning. Children should be given assignments like watering a plant or writing a poem to honor the deceased.
The death of loved ones or acquaintances is always a challenge, and that is the way it should be. When we tell people about death, the child or adult should accept it as an important event and experience complex emotions and thoughts. We can best serve young people by being honest and expressing the truth in as gentle and loving a way as possible.
South Pasadena Atheist Meetup
There is no easy way to explain death to a child. Heck, how about explaining death to an adult who has just lost a child. The problem of death — if it is a problem — is that it’s not explainable. I suppose the survival instinct in every living thing can simply not understand or comprehend the idea of not being.
But the sooner we face the fact that everything dies, including our children, the better off we’ll be. I don’t have children of my own, so if this commentary seems cold or out of touch, it probably is. But I think I would start with the statement that nothing lasts forever, including people. Even our Sun, which we see every day in Southern California, is dying. True, it still has a few billion more years left, but it, too, eventually will go out.
I did a funeral service one time for a woman who did not believe in God, and so I left religion out of my eulogy. One of the things I said was that death was a natural thing, and then I asked the rhetorical question, “If death is natural for every living thing, how could death be a bad thing?” I went on to say that we might be sad because we will never see the deceased again … “in this life,” I tacked on. But the deceased isn’t sad (as far as we know) or in pain (as far as we know), so how could death be bad?
Good luck with that kind of reasoning with a child. But I think that honesty is the best policy, whether one is dealing with an adult, who knows that life will end someday, or with a child, who is not yet aware of our fragile existence. Better, I think, to deal with the brutal truth than to use some euphemism such as, “Mommy is up on the roof and can’t get down.” Besides, I hate euphemisms; they are a pain in the po-po!
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Canada Congregational Church
My farm background with common (though not casually regarded) death has shaped my opinion on this question as much or more than my atheism. The older generation being cared for at home, which may have been more common in the ancient days of my youth, also allowed children to personally witness human bodies in decline.
Even the 1% must accept death, if not taxes, and children rely on adults to help them come to terms with the inevitability of life’s end. Easy? If it was, it would be called fooling around and goofing off, not parenting and pastoring.
I always avoid the euphemisms and I think it is healthiest for the child’s understanding for parents to use direct, non-magical language.
Also beneficial in talking with children about an afterlife, or lack thereof, as your family believes, is at least some mention that other beliefs exist. How deeply they go into comparative religion is every family’s choice, of course; but given world realities, I believe that some unbiased knowledge of each other’s beliefs is critical for co-existence.
A child’s grief that a loved one is gone is important, whatever their stage of understanding of death, or whether the family believes that it leads to another existence. Yes, children benefit from hearing/talking about the concept of death as opportunities arise in the natural course of things, be it losing pets, or even in stories and other entertainment.
I believe it is no accident that fairy tales in all traditions, including Disney cartoons, so often have death as a prominent theme, as humans transmit their cultural ideas about life, of which death is a part.
As someone whose parents protected her from the realities of death through most of her childhood and youth, I would definitely say that children should have the truth explained to them at whatever age they become aware of this basic life experience. Of course, the words used need to be age-appropriate; and it is not necessary to go into all the details before the child asks about them. But to keep such information secret, or use cover words such as “passed away,” “went to sleep” or “is with God now,” without further explanation, may leave children with many unresolved questions and even fear.
Certainly it is not easy to explain death in ways that are comfortable for everyone, particularly when the person being asked for information is grieving. But it is important. Perhaps a person in such a circumstance needs to ask someone else to explain about death to children for him or her. Counselors, members of the clergy or other professionals can be called on to provide support. If such help is needed, parents would do well to provide it for their children, mitigating potential psychological difficulties in the future.
It is also important for adults, other than those of the immediate family, to recognize that those of various religious traditions, or no religious background, have different ways of understanding death. It is therefore critical that a person who does not have the same religious background as the child not try to provide explanations from his or her own beliefs. Such an attempt might be confusing, at best, and damaging, at worst.
As with any difficult issues, parents and other adults need to provide safe and nurturing places for children to ask questions and explore ideas. Death is sad, and we all need to have a place to grieve the loss of someone we love, even an animal companion, in our own way. If we provide a space for experiencing both joy and sadness, the issue of death will be another of life’s experiences that can be shared together — an opportunity for transformation.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church
of the Verdugo Hills
There is, of course, no easy way to explain death to anyone, child or adult. It’s a great mystery to us all, “that undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” as Shakespeare said. And there’s no template that works for all people or all children; some are better able to grasp mystery and find meaning in it than others.
So I have only scraps of opinion to offer, for whatever they’re worth; and I offer them trusting that parents know their children better than I, and will take in what might be helpful here, and leave the rest.
First, I agree that it’s better to give the straight physical explanation — that bodies get sick and hurt and stop working — than to try to sugarcoat it. I also agree that it’s a bad idea to try to theologize about death, heaven, and God’s will to “take” people, as if God is some sort of alien predator beaming people off the planet.
I guess the main thing I’d say is, be honest. Be honest about your sadness, and let your child be honest about theirs. Be honest about saying there are things about death you don’t understand. With older children, at least, you might even be honest about your fears of death, and let them voice theirs. End with reassurance, but don’t jump straight there before your child can say how he or she feels.
In my early days in ministry, I used to try to avoid talking too much about the cross to children, not wanting to terrorize them with Jesus’ suffering and death. But over the years, I’ve come to trust them more. Children understand that bad things happen. Despite our best efforts to shelter them, they’ve already faced some measure of suffering, and they’re perfectly capable of comprehending tragedy and loss.
Ultimately, what they need from parents is your presence, love and comfort — not your theological omniscience. You don’t have to explain it, you just have to be there, with loving arms, a willingness to listen, and a heart brave enough to be vulnerable with your child and be sad together.
Just be there.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
La Cañada Flintridge
Sadly, there is no easy way to explain death to a child — and unfortunately, it’s almost inevitable that every child will experience the death of a loved one. Most often, the first loss is that of an elderly grandparent or great-grandparent, in which case a child hopefully has caring parents and relatives to help them bear the burden. Similarly, if a beloved pet passes away, there is usually a supportive family that can rally around to ease the sadness felt by the little ones. But sometimes a child will lose a parent and be left without the reassuring shoulder of a father or mother to lean on. That is undoubtedly one of life’s most difficult, most painful experiences.
I have found that children — and often adults — cannot truly grasp or understand explanations for death, pain and suffering. And for many people in the midst of severe grief, there simply aren’t any satisfactory answers to address such profound questions. I feel that for the clergy, more important than trying to make sense of death is to simply offer a gentle helping hand and abundant emotional support. This is especially true in the case of a young child who loses a parent.
I also believe that religious rituals surrounding death and bereavement provide a good mechanism for being able to cope with the passing of a loved one. After the death of an immediate relative, Judaism requires the observance of Shiva, a seven-day period during which the mourners stay home and are visited, cared for and comforted by friends and relatives. This process of slowly easing one back into society after a calamitous experience is therapeutic, and helps one come to terms with the reality of this most painful experience.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
’Twas the night before this Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. When down from the stairs there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. My kids were screaming “FIRE, PAPA! FIRE, FIRE!”
It was 2:55 a.m., just minutes before my alarm was set to ring that I might do my duty; have cookies and milk and re-refrigerate reindeer carrots. But there was fire, and my neighbor’s house was ablaze. I began immediately hosing my own garage, which had also caught his flames, and I prayed real firemen would hurry. They finally arrived, and I returned to settle the kids and explain to one why Santa probably hadn’t delivered yet.
The next morning being unusual, as Christmas fell on church day, the kids were further traumatized by having to wait to open presents. Finally the time came, and when all was done, the kids simultaneously burst into tears over the death of our neighbor. That was weird. We had to talk.
“Poor guy, probably trying to keep warm without power.” His body took 5 days to find, but we already knew. My kids were saddened and wondered about his soul.
I believe death needs to be spoken of truthfully. You don’t tell kids that God is “taking” people.
“Tough luck kid, God killed your mom.” How’s that sound? That’s the translation. It makes God the bad guy, and it’s not true. Or, “Jesus needed her.” You don’t matter, Jesus gets what he wants. Sheesh.
Be real about death. Teach kids that everyone dies. Bodies wear out and things happen. Punt to the fallen-world reality. Here we get sick, we suffer, we die. But when heaven merges with Earth and God dwells with man openly, it’s a new game. That’s why heaven is heaven. If we lived forever, we wouldn’t consider God, but if we understand sin and life’s brevity, then we look longingly and say, “Come, lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
For the irreligious, I feel pity. You bring the pain of irrelevance to your children. Death — the end. Your fault.
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church