In 1996 I was 35 years old. This was the first time I had ever experienced the death of a loved one. My son was two and a half at the time and was very close to my grandfather. I had to not only deal with a death for my first time but also had the task of explaining this to a two year old. This was early in my Early Care and Education career and I had only begun to take Early Childhood classes. I had nothing to work with but common sense and a fairly good understanding of my son’s ability to comprehend my grandfather’s death.
I never once even considered sheltering my child from this because death is a part of life and is an inevitable occurrence that we all must face at one time or another. He had seen my grandfather’s health decline so he knew that Papa was sick. When the time came for me to tell my son that Papa had died I made sure to be very brief and matter of fact using words he would understand.
I used his favorite flashlight that made noise as an analogy to explain what happened. I reminded him how when the batteries died in the flashlight that it would no longer work. The light didn’t come on and it no longer made any noise. I told him that our bodies sometimes no longer work and that Papa was very old and his body quit working just like the batteries, so he could no longer talk, walk, breathe, eat, or do anything anymore and we would bury him in the ground kind of like we threw the flashlight away. That his body would be gone forever but everything we loved about Papa would always be in our imagination.
This particular explanation of course would not work for every death that a child may face. Young children are extremely concrete and do not have the ability to think abstractly until early adolescence. Therefore a discussion regarding death should always be clear and concise using very simple words that your child will understand. Parents sometimes think that they should shelter their child from the death of a loved one; this could potentially create more issues than telling them and allowing them to see you cry and watch family members mourn. Just remember if you chose to take a child to a funeral or wake prepare them in advance for what they may see and hear. Answer questions in very simple terms and be prepared to have questions days even months or years after the death as they will still process the information.
My daughter was five when my grandmother died. Since she was older than my son she reacted and handled it very different. My son mainly would tell me that Papa died like his flashlight and is in the ground. My daughter being three years older had a higher level of understanding and mourned the loss with the rest of the family. She cried periodically for a few years after her death if she saw something that reminded her of Mimi. She would also have dreams about Mimi. These reactions are very normal, actually similar to what an adult would have.
Children are very smart and resilient, adults don’t give children enough credit in regards to what they can and can’t handle. Of course there may be situations that children don’t need to know specific details about until they are older like, over doses, murder, and suicide or violent deaths. But they can still be told that a death occurred and parents should use common sense about what they need to share based on the age and maturity level of their child and no one knows that better than a parent.
The following is a great resource and offers many tips and strategies for discussing death with a child of any age hospicenet.org.
Deborah Howell is the Assistant Director of Partners In Learning. Her education includes an associate’s degree from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in early childhood education and a bachelor’s degree from UNC Greensboro in human development and family studies with a concentration in birth-kindergarten. She also holds a master’s degree at UNCG. She also serves as a CBRS therapist for the center.