Talking to Children About Death

My friend’s 86-year-old grandfather recently entered hospice after suffering a debilitating stroke that left half his body paralyzed. She’s making the best of what little time they have left, visiting him frequently without her children. When I asked why, she said she was concerned the kids would be afraid of him and how he looks now with the paralysis. 

Looking back at my stepfather’s graveside service last year, I was disappointed when the parents of two children (ages 8 and 10) decided against bringing their son and daughter to the cemetery because they thought it would be too much for them. Their children were very close to my stepfather, and I feel they should have been allowed to come to this service because it was a beautiful, family friendly service.

The service we held was held outdoors in the cemetery on a lovely sunny day with a horse drawn carriage. As a bagpiper led the carriage with a melody, everyone walked behind and followed the carriage to the burial site. The casket was closed the entire time and we had everyone place a flower on the casket before it was lowered. There couldn't have been a more perfect opportunity to address the subject of death with a child than this service.

Children understand death differently at different ages as shown below:

Age of Child

Comprehension of Death

0 to 3 years No comprehension of death.
3 to 5 years Unable to understand finality of death.
5 - 9 years Begins to understand death is final, but not always that it is inevitable for everyone.
9 years & up Understands death is final and inevitable for everyone.

Be completely honest. When explaining death, speak in tangible terms instead of philosophical ones. Give your children permission to cry and to express their feelings. If you do not know the answer to a question they ask, be honest about that too. 

Children need stability and therefore, families should not make up stories or fairy-tales about death. Never share with a child something you do not believe yourself or something they will have to discard later. We should also never tell them their loved one is in heaven, that death is like sleep, or that death happened because the person was sick. This last part in particular can scare children into fearing death from any illness, which is why it is not recommended.

Every parent has the right to decide when it is appropriate to expose their child/children to death. As a funeral director, I’m hoping parents will keep an open mind, and realize there are beautiful ceremonies that need not be frightening to their children but may help to expose them in a more gentle way. 

Do you remember your own first experience with death or the first time you had to explain death to your child? Was there anything you found that was comforting to you or your child?