Death is perhaps one of the most difficult things to explain to young children, even more so when you are dealing with your own grief. But children have a compelling need to learn more about the world we live in, and death is part and parcel of life. If their questions are not answered adequately, we may leave them unprotected from their fears and imagination.
It may surprise many, but preschool children are made aware of death from early on. They hear about it in fairytales – the Munchkins chant “Ding dong! The witch is dead!” in The Wizard of Oz, watch it on TV – news reports of a fatal car crash, or simply see how daddy causes a cockroach to keel over with a can of bug spray. Some children may even have experienced the passing of a family member or a pet by that age, or heard about the death of a friend’s parent, or grandma’s friend.
However, despite these encounters, preschoolers are just beginning to understand how life works and thus, find the concept of death difficult to grasp. “They may see death as reversible and temporary,” says Dr Cai Yiming, Senior Consultant of the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). “This is reinforced by television and films in which their favourite cartoon or real life action heroes die in one show only to reappear in another. The finality of death is the most difficult aspect for a child to accept and is often beyond them until they are seven to eight years old.”
Reacting To Death
Different children may react to death in various ways, and perhaps in a whole variety of ways. It’s just their way of trying to cope, so don’t be upset if your usually independent child becomes clingy or refuses to go to school. If there has been a lot of grieving around him, he is struggling to understand why, and his world might suddenly have become a more scary place in his mind.
Conversely, children may not show any reaction to the death at all, or seem flippant about it at times. They may re-enact a funeral that they had seen on TV or in real life, or play dead, then laugh when you show concern.
Jayne Pereira, 35, shares how she was stunned when her five-year-old brother asked, “Since Kor-Kor is gone, can I have his Nerf gun?” She lost her older son in 2009. Although it may seem callous or morbid, this is an age-appropriate response from children who have yet to fully comprehend what death is and what an impact it has on others around them.
Some children may alternate between both extremes intermittently and display moments of fear or sadness interspersed with cheerful play. This is also normal, as children process grief in bite sizes. This also means that they may delay grieving till they feel safe to express those feelings or wait to ask questions that appear to upset the grown-ups now. It may be a process that takes weeks, months or even years, especially if it is a parent or sibling whom they have lost.
Talking About It
So how can parents and caregivers help to explain death suitably and address questions sufficiently in ways young children will best understand?
Satisfy Their Curiosity
First and foremost, do not avoid their questions. It is natural for a preschooler to be curious about death, even if they have not yet lost a loved one. In fact, encourage them to ask questions because it is much easier to lay the groundwork during the happy times so that they will be better prepared for the sad ones. Always be honest and remember that sometimes there are simply no answers and it is okay to say “I don’t know.”
At this age, a child’s view of the world is very literal. Telling a child that Grandpa is “sleeping peacefully” or that he has “gone to a faraway place” is confusing, because they know that a person who sleeps will wake up in the morning or will want to know when he’ll be coming back from his trip.
Worse still, these euphemisms may give rise to worries that if he went to bed, he would die too. Or fears that if you went to the office, you won’t come back.
Explain in straightforward and concrete terms how Grandma’s body has stopped working because she was too old, and that she can’t eat, sleep, walk, or see, and doesn’t breathe or feel pain anymore. Or how Uncle Andy’s body stopped working because of an illness and the doctor couldn’t fix it. Reassure your child that Uncle Andy died because he was very ill, and that getting sick with a little flu doesn’t mean that he’ll die too.
Similarly, when your child asks where Uncle Andy is now, the question usually isn’t referring to whether there’s an afterlife. He will probably be satisfied learning that his uncle is in the cemetery.
Share Your Beliefs Thoughtfully
If your religious beliefs include an afterlife or heaven, you may want to share your thoughts. But do tread carefully; if you told your child that his classmate Alice is with God now because she was a good girl, he might worry that God would take him too if he was obedient. Saying something like “We’re sad that Alice isn’t with us anymore, but it’s comforting to know that she’s with God now,” would be more reassuring.
Let Them Feel
In their own way, children do feel sorrow over the death of a loved one. Avoid downplaying a child’s sadness by saying “Don’t feel sad, Grandma’s in heaven now” as this tells him that he should not express his feelings openly. Instead, offer lots of sympathy for his loss, even if it was for the pet cat who died. It isn’t okay that he has lost his furry friend and he shouldn’t be told that it is.
Grieving is an important part of healing for everyone and while you don’t want to frighten your child with excessive grief, don’t hide it from him altogether. Learning that grown-ups need to cry sometimes too may help your child feel less alone in his sadness.
Allay Their Guilt
They may also feel a very real sense of anger or guilt but may not express it out loud. For example, a five-year-old may think his baby sister died because he was jealous of her, or his mother left him because he had been a naughty boy. Children need reassurance that it was not their fault that the death happened.
Find Helpful Resources
Find a support group or a friend who can help explain things if it gets too difficult. Sometimes children accept things better from people other than their parents. There are also books that address the topic in an age-appropriate and sensitive way. These are some suggestions:
• Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
• Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss by Michaelene Mundy
• Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
Seek Help When Necessary
It is easy to overlook a child in times of grief, thinking that he is too young to understand, or ‘protecting’ him from the truth by sugar-coating it. Dr Cai warns of the dangers if a child who has experienced the death of a family member does not receive adequate attention or is misguided: “A child may become depressed, insecure and have disturbed sleep and poor appetite. Sometimes they may act younger than their age in what is termed regressive behaviour. For instance, they may need to be fed, helped to bathe, return to bedwetting – skills they had previously mastered. Their school performance may suffer and the child may start talking and writing about dying to join the dead person.”
He adds, “If these problems are prolonged and severe, they will need professional help. Parents or guardians may seek the help of their family doctor or paediatrician who may refer them to a child psychiatrist or other mental health professional to help the child accept the death and go through the mourning process.”