Children want and need to learn about and understand the world around them. Death is a part of life. If we don’t answer our children’s questions about death, we may leave them alone with their imaginations and their fears.
Children may bring questions about death into everyday conversations. They may insert a question about death into a conversation about something else entirely. In the same way, they may abruptly move on to another subject once they have taken in as much information as they can deal with at the time. So work with the questions when they come, and don’t feel pressured to give all the information at one time.
Accept that talking with children about death will feel uncomfortable. You may have trouble finding the right words. Just know that children are forgiving when we stumble over what we need to say. They are happy to know that you value them enough to talk with them.
When children ask about death, give answers that are as factual and specific as you feel they can understand. “A dead body can’t breathe, or think, or eat, or move. It won’t do any of those things ever again.”
Check that children understand what you have told them by asking them to repeat it back to you. If they share the information in their own words, and it still makes sense to you, you will know that they understand.
Be prepared for children to come back with more questions after they have had some time to think about things you have already shared. And expect to have to answer some questions more than once. Hearing answers more than once can help them seem more real.
Some questions have no answers. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Children will appreciate your honesty.
If it is painful for you to talk about death, tell your children why. Explain that talking about death reminds you of a time in the past when someone you loved died. It is helpful for children to know that you feel the same things that they feel.
Adapted from “Explaining Death to Children,” bbc.co.uk