Healthy Kids    

"How fast do you get to heaven?"

Helping your child understand death

A death in the family is never easy for anyone, especially a child. We live in a society that shelters people from the experience, which can make understanding it all the more difficult.


When my mother was dying from cancer in 2004 we chose Hospice, so the last weeks of her life were very hands-on, with family all around. The younger grandkids were in the next room watching Blues Clues, laughing and playing and only mildly aware of what was happening.


But my daughter stayed by my side for those weeks. She was five then, and mostly remembers the evenings we spent at the hotel, swimming in the pool and being with her cousins. She knew grandma was sick, but dying was a concept she hadn’t grasped yet. She understood the reaction of the adults around her so I was as honest with her as I could be. I told her I was sad because my mommy was very sick.


At times, it was a surreal experience; watching my mother edge closer to death while making sure my five-year-old was entertained. It was my hope that my daughter would not find death scary but would see it more as part of life.


Hospice provided counseling, which was helpful given the young ages of my daughter and her cousin, who was three. Age has a lot to do with how a child understands death. For preschoolers death seems temporary and impersonal. Their frame of reference is often cartoons. How many times has Sponge Bob had the life squeezed out of him only to return with his famous laugh?


Five- to nine-year-olds are more aware. They have an understanding that things die: pets, bugs, even leaves on trees. What’s important to know about this age is that death can be scary. A child may begin to associate things like ghosts and skeletons with it.


As children get older they begin to understand that death is final and that all things will die, including themselves. Some teens tend to become philosophical about life and look to understand its meaning. Others may try to “cheat death”; they react to their fear of it by trying to get control of something they can’t control. As a result, they take chances with their own lives.


As adults, we may find the topic of death a tough one given our own fears and issues. So, how do you communicate with your child when you can’t make sense of it yourself? Paul Schwartz, professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, recommends that parents keep the conversation simple and reality based. Avoid explanations such as “Grandpa went to sleep”. An explanation like this will confuse the child and possibly even scare the child into worrying that if he goes to sleep, he may not wake up.


The finality of death should be addressed with a child in a manner he can understand. A grandparent dying versus a parent, sibling or even another child passing on will dictate the conversation and your own emotions. So will the relationship your child had with the person.


One thing I found helpful from our experience with Hospice was to be open with my daughter – even if that meant admitting that I just didn’t know. Children look to us to have all the answers, but when it comes to death, some answers aren’t easily found, and making things up could make it worse.


Check in with your child to be sure he didn’t get lost in your explanation. Young children tend to be curious about death, so it’s important not to let them feel embarrassed or guilty, even if some of their questions seem morbid or they repeatedly ask the same questions.


Hospice was also helpful in pointing out that it’s natural for young children to worry about their parent’s mortality. Death means separation, and young children need to know that they will be loved and cared for – that there will always be someone there for them. Encourage your child to share his worries and fears. Avoiding the topic may only increase his anxiety over death.


According to Eva Ottesen, LCSW-R, coordinator of Children’s Bereavement Services for Hospice of Orange and Sullivan counties, “Kids need to have someone there with a big pair of ears, someone to listen to them while helping them feel safe.”


Ottesen stresses that there is no right or wrong way for a child to experience or express their grief. The key is for parents to be there to answer questions. “Children are resourceful. With proper support, they have the capacity to heal.”


Five years later, at age ten, my daughter once again was present while a grandparent prepared to die. Unlike with my mother’s death, when we were in homey and familiar setting, this time the family gathered around a hospital bed to say their good-byes.

My daughter was much more aware of death this time. She made it clear she wanted nothing to do with it and was not the least bit interested in visiting her grandfather as he struggled through the last days of his life. She was scared. We knew then it was better for her to remember him as the vibrant man he had been.


This time, she had lots of questions. She wanted to know what happened to his body once it was buried, what would it look like and did I want to be buried or “burned”? With these questions, I gave her gentle, simple explanations; that the funeral home made it so her grandpa’s body would always look the way she remembered him, dressed in the suit her daddy had bought.


I also let my daughter know there was plenty of time before I would need to think about my own death since I planned to be around for a long, long time. She seemed satisfied with all those answers, at least for now.


Jean Campbell Galli is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom living in Orange County.