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Parents Explaining Death to their Children
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This page is designed to help parents explain death to children and help children who are mourning.


What children understand about death varies by age.

Ages 1-3 years

Children in this age group have little understanding of death. They often do not realize what has happened, sometimes they believe the person is sleeping and cannot understand the permanence (Wolfelt, 23).


Ages 4-6 years

Children in this age group have little concept of death but more of an idea than 1-3 year olds. These kids may understand that death is sad, but may not know why—they typically react to the people around them (Wolfelt, 23). Closer to the age of six they begin to understand about death, however, the permanence is not totally understood. Children around age six become preoccupied by funerals and cemeteries.


Ages 7-9 years

These children start to perceptualize the finality and become interested in the causes of death (Wolfelt, 24). They now understand the concept of death and begin asking questions about what happens after death, and realize they will someday become old and die (Wolfelt 24).


Of course, not all children fall into these categories by age. Each child develops individually and matures differently.


Some frequently asked questions:

Q. What do I tell my child when someone close to them dies?

A. Tell them the truth, and tell them as soon as possible. Children have a tremendous ability to cope. Most people try to shield children from death, when actually this does more harm than good. Explain how the person died and what events will take place in the following days. Allow the child to participate as much as possible. Try not use euphemisms as this can become confusing and may even scare a child.


Q. Should I bring my children to the funeral/visitation?

A. Yes, a funeral is very important is the grieving and mourning processes. Children as well as adults need closure, and a funeral can offer this. Allowing children to participate in rituals and events helps them to create a memory picture and recall the events later in life (Canine, 209).


Q. Should I bring my child to the cemetery?

A. Yes, even if the body is already buried. It can be reassuring to know where the body will be. A grave site can be where the child makes "contact" with the loved one after they are gone (Canine, 209).


Q. What do I do if my child wants to touch the body?

A. Let them. Make sure you or another adult is there to supervise and offer assistance. Explain to the child that he or she should be gentle and the body will not necessarily feel the same as his or hers. Children are very curious and have the need to explore, so be as understanding as possible. However, do not force a child to touch or kiss a dead body as this can be very frightening.


Q. What kinds of services are available for my child after a loss?

A. There are many different types of help available. There are support groups. Other forms of help are available such as individual counseling, psychiatry and other professions. Consult you funeral director if you have questions.


Remember that when talking to children about death always speak to them in a way they can understand, however, be careful not to sound condescending. Children can tell when they are being talked down to. Be a good observer and listener. Try to answer all your child's questions. Allow your child to express his/her feeling regarding the matter, and don't be afraid to show emotion around your children; it can be very healing. It is important to respect your child and be a good listener.


As hard as parents try to protect their children from harmful things, information about death should not be one of those things. The more children know about death the better they can cope with it, sometimes better than adults.


References ♦ Canine, John D. The Psychosocial Aspects of Death and Dying. Appleton & Lange, 1996. pp. 207-219. ♦ Wolfelt, Alan Ph.D. Helping Children Cope with Grief. Accelerated Development Inc., 1983. pp. 22-31.

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