Talking to Children About Death

One of the most powerful instincts parents have is to protect their children from hurt. Another is to educate them. How do parents reconcile these two roles when they clash; for example, when children need to learn about difficult subjects such as death? If there are young children or grandchildren in your family, and if your relative lives in a nursing home, or has died, then you have likely faced this issue. We’re sure it hasn’t been easy. However, as a result of research in the field of child psychology, we now know enough about how a child thinks at a specific age to help parents and grandparents talk meaningfully to children about the life cycle.

At age three, children are not sophisticated enough to understand the difference between life and death. Life is anything that moves. This thing called “death,” on the other hand, must be something you wake up from, come back from, or get better from. But three-year-olds are sophisticated enough to know when an explanation doesn’t match reality. They’re also sophisticated enough to badly miss somebody they care for. Adults must address these needs with respect, and at a level the child can understand. Simply explain to threear-olds that Grandma won’t be back, and give many reassurances about how much the child was loved.

It isn’t until age six or seven that children can fathom death, and all the layers of understanding associated with it; for example, that the dead can’t see, hear, think or feel the way the child can, and that all people will die, including themselves and their parents. With this broader level of understanding, a child’s needs change, and adults must react accordingly. Always state the truth, in the simplest terms possible. Explain that Grandpa may not have wanted to die, but he had no choice. A person’s body lasts only so long, and Grandpa’s finally stopped working. If the grandparent died of a specific illness, make it easy to understand; for example, “The heart’s job is to pump blood to all parts of the body. When Grandpa’s heart got sick, it stopped working. That meant the rest of the body didn’t get the blood it needed, and it stopped working, too.”

Experts agree that telling a child anything less than the truth will work against the child in the long run. Children remember, and scars may surface years later.

Children have a right, if they wish, to participate with family in customs such as visiting a funeral home, and attending a funeral. It is just as important for children of all ages to weep and grieve, as it is for adults. You might consider starting early in preparing children to understand and accept life cycles. Nature is the ideal place to turn for help. Flowers and trees undergo seasonal changes, wild animals die in the woods, beloved pets die at home.

Taking children to visit relatives at the nursing home or assisted living centre is another wonderful way to educate children about life cycles, teach them responsibility and encourage a healthy attitude towards aging. And it certainly brings residents a lot of joy to be among children. If you have any questions about bringing children to the nursing home, please talk to your director of care.