Like Timmy's mother, many adults often find that explaining the death of a relative or friend to children is not an easy thing to do. It's difficult to know what to say and how to say it so children can understand and accept what they are told without being overwhelmed by the fact of death or people's responses to it.
| 12 August 2008



I haven’t told Jimmy yet. I’m just not sure how he’s going to act. I’ve talked to him before about people dying, and I’ve told him that there are two parts to people – their bodies are the outside part and their souls are the inside part. And I told him that people’s bodies die but their souls still go on living. But that was about people in general. I don’t know how he’ll take it when I tell him that Uncle Steve is dead.”

“When I told my kids about Uncle Steve, they took it pretty well. You know, they saw him pretty often. But they knew he was sick. The last time he came over he told them he couldn’t play with them because he was tired. When I told the kids that he got very, very sick and died, they asked a lot of questions – where he was now, how he got there, what he’s doing there.”

“What worries me is that lately when we’re at home Timmy says, ‘What would we do if Daddy wouldn’t come home?’ and he begins to cry. I know I have to tell him about Uncle Steve, but I wish there was some way I could do it that wouldn’t make him think that the same thing could happen now to his dad.”

“Well, if he asks about his dad when you tell him about Uncle Steve, maybe you could tell him that Jim probably won’t die for a long time and that you’ll all be together for a very long time.”

“I’ve tried that already. But Timmy hasn’t stopped asking about it and he hasn’t stopped crying when he asks. I even tried telling him that if anything happened to his dad, I’d still be here to take care of him and we’d still be a family. But just thinking of something happening to Jim made me cry, and we both ended up crying. That’s one of the reasons I don’t know whether to bring him tot he funeral home or not. He’s so emotional. If anyone begins to cry, he’ll cry, too. I just think the whole thing will really upset him.”

“I know what you mean. I took the kids to the funeral home. They didn’t cry, but when people began to cry, David said that I told him Uncle Steve was in a nice place now, and he asked why people were crying if Uncle Steve was in such a nice place. That’s pretty hard to explain.”

“I don’t think I could explain it either. And I’m sure that if I told Timmy they were crying because Uncle Steve wasn’t with them anymore, he’d begin thinking of Jim not coming home anymore and we’d be right back where we started from.”

Like Timmy’s mother, many adults often find that explaining the death of a relative or friend to children is not an easy thing to do. It’s difficult to know what to say and how to say it so children can understand and accept what they are told without being overwhelmed by the fact of death or people’s responses to it. Finding the right words depends on a lot of things. It depends on the adult’s ability to explain things in words that children will understand. It depends on the emotional state of the adult and the emotional needs of the child and the ability of the adult to understand and fill the needs of the child.

This is not to say that there is any one, best way to explain death to children. Children and situations vary too much for this to be true. The mental capability of children to grasp facts and ideas is different at various ages, and their emotional needs and ability to cope with situations also vary. Nor is this to say that there is a “right” way to explain death so that grief and sorrow are eliminated. No words, however gentle and sympathetic, can make sorrow and grief disappear; these things are a part of life, and a part that children must understand and deal with. Since there is no one, best way, each adult must try to find the best way to tell a particular child. Hopefully, this will help adults better understand things from a child’s point of view so that they can find their own words to explain death to children.

Explaining death to children is something that should be done before the death of a relative or friend makes it unavoidable. There are several good reasons for doing so. One reason is simply that death is an important part of life; to know about life, one must know about death. It is part of the cycle of existence, part of the scheme of things. It is important to us as individuals because each of us must die. Teaching children about life, then, is necessarily also teaching them about death. It means fitting death into the general scheme of things for them and helping them to understand death and its meaning.

A second reason is that death is a pretty complicated subject. As Earl Grollman points out in his book, Explaining Death to Children, there are two meanings of death: a factual one and an interpretative one. The factual meaning deals with the physical side of death or the end of life in the physical body: life stops, a person is dead, and the body is buried. The interpretative meaning is the meaning given to death. The Christian view of death, for example, involves the existence of the soul and an after-life and a system of values that is reflected in rewards and punishments in that after-life. Since a total understanding of death involves an understanding of not only the physical facts of death but also some pretty complicated and abstract religious ideas, children can’t be expected to understand all of it at once. The meaning of death is something that children can learn only slowly and gradually, a little bit at a time. They need time to develop the mental processes necessary to understand these ideas and time to develop emotionally so they can cope with and accept these ideas.

However, before adults begin explaining death to children, they should be certain they have all their facts and ideas right. The physical facts of death give little trouble, but the religious ideas may be a little more difficult. Adults need to ask themselves what the Orthodox religion teaches about death and the soul and the after-life. They need to consider what meaning death gives to life and to man’s relationship with God. What the adult doesn’t know or isn’t sure about, he should talk over with his parish priest. It is also important for adults to examine their feelings about death because they teach children as much by the way they present facts and ideas as by the facts and ideas they present. Adults who fear or dread death will probably convey these feelings to children, and the children will probably learn to react to death in the same way. Therefore, adults should understand their own feelings so that they don’t undermine the ideas they are teaching by their emotional reactions.

Teaching children about death doesn’t really mean sitting down once a week or once a month to talk about death. For one thing, younger children couldn’t concentrate long enough to make the discussion profitable. For another thing, discussions really aren’t the best way to teach younger children. Helping children to understand complicated ideas is a little like working a jigsaw puzzle. One adds a piece at a time, fitting one piece into another until the whole picture is completed. This process follows the way in which children learn. Between the ages of 2 and 7, the thought processes of children are very limited as is their span of attention. They are still very concerned with learning language, with assigning particular words to particular objects and actions. They generally can focus their attention on only one fact or idea at a time. They can conclude one fact from another (if I am good today, I can go to the circus tomorrow), but they are not capable of more complicated linking of ideas or of linking several ideas together. Children from 7 to 11 years are capable of more complicated and systematic thought, but they are limited to concrete situations, objects, and actions. In other words, children this age can concentrate upon relating things as long as the things are visibly or tangibly present. It isn’t until children are about 12 years old or older that they can think in symbolic or abstract terms.

Complex and abstract ideas and complicated processes of thought are simply beyond the range of children before they are about 12 years old. Consequently, until that time, ideas should be kept simple and concrete, and attention should be focused on one idea at a time. This doesn’t mean that complex, abstract ideas like the nature of God or the nature of man’s soul should not be mentioned until children are 12 years old. Instead it means that the complex ideas must be built one concrete step at a time with careful attention given to connections between ideas. This kind of teaching is progressive in the sense that the ideas and information can get more advanced as the child’s vocabulary increases, his thought process can handle more complicated material, and his store of facts and ideas increases. This kind of teaching is also best done informally: during walks or drives in the car, on rainy days when the child must stay indoors, during pre-bedtime story-telling and talks. If the child seems uninterested, the adult can drop the subject and try again on another day.

Children also have certain limitations in the area of understanding death. Studies have shown that preschool children from 3 to 5 years have no concept of the permanence of death, especially in connection with people. Although they can see flowers wither and die or insects and small animals dead, they don’t really understand that neither the flowers nor the animals will come back to life again. This lack of understanding of the finality of death can be seen, too, in the games of children this age. They will pretend to shoot someone, say “You’re dead,” and in a little while say, “O.K. you’re alive again.” They really believe death is only a temporary state. Children from 5 to 8 years of age can accept the fact that particular individuals have died, but they don’t understand that everyone dies, including themselves and their parents. Around 9 years of age, children begin to understand that all living things – including themselves – will die. Adolescents, with their more complex mental abilities, can look at the concept of death more critically, examining ideas of the soul, the afterlife, the meaning of death.


(Reprinted from The Word, February 1998. The author is the late Donna Bobin.)

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