Talking about death to your preschooler
Death is not the opposite of life but part of it.
Till death do us part.
I can already hear all the Chinese people saying, "Choi, choi, choi... so near Chinese New Year talk about death!?"
But the fact of the matter is, nobody really knows when our time is up. Death is like taboo, it is not something that is easy to accept or to talk about.
A Baby Thrown From a Pram
About a week ago a man drove through Melbourne city, killing and hurting adults and children walking along the pedestrian at CBD. The youngest was a 3 month old baby Zachary Bryant. Police rushed him to hospital in a patrol car but he died at the Royal Children's Hospital on Saturday night. Zachary's 2 year-old sister Zara, also injured in the incident, is reported to be in stable condition.
But what would Zara say when she's finally discharged? Where's her baby brother?
Challenges When Discussing Death
Adults tend to keep their emotions to themselves and avoid the topic of death completely. We like to use excuses like:
- "if I don't talk about it, I won't have to deal with it."
- "I need to shelter my kids from this."
- "kids wouldn't understand it."
- "I don't have all the answers."
You may think your kids are oblivious, but on the contrary they can pick up the tiniest change just by watching you. By bottling up your emotions you're sending the message that is is bad and that we shouldn't talk about it. Instead keep communications open even if it may be a difficult topic to talk about. Openly share what you know about cultures and beliefs. By showing them honestly it helps them understand grief and emotions, both of which are very real and completely okay. Help them understand that death is an inevitable part of life.
A General Age Guide on How Children Handle Grief
- Preschool children may see death as something that is not permanent, changeable and feel detached from it.
- Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to see that all living things eventually die and that death is final.
- From nine through to adolescence, children begin to understand fully that death is finite and that they too will die some day.
Depending on their age groups, children will find varying ways to express their feelings while mourning. Regressing is common and being angry about the situation is common in older children as well. Parents need to remain tolerant and supportive (although within set boundaries for the older children), these things are only temporary.
Tips on How to Talk to Them About Death
- Tell them about it immediately and do it yourself. Be honest and share your feelings, do not let them feel left out.
- Nothing is too scary or painful that you couldn't talk about it.
- Brief and simple explanations. Use straightforward language and avoid using words like "asleep", "lost" or "gone".
- Use concrete and familiar examples (the dead do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel any more)
- Children learn through repetition. From time to time, they may go through different experience and will ask more questions to understand. Encourage them to ask questions. Check back on their level of understanding about death.
- Help them to understand how death and emotions are linked.
- Reassure your child that you love them and that the death was not their fault in any way.