mother and daughter sitting together having a conversation

When someone dies, young children usually don’t yet understand that death is final: they think it’s temporary or that their loved one has gone to sleep. So, it’s useful to know how you can explain the situation sensitively while conveying the finality of this event.

Scenario:

You have told your child his grandpa has died.

He says:

Will you die too?

You might think: 

He doesn’t need to know about this at his age.

He might think:

Where is grandpa now? Is he going to stop being dead so I can play with him again?

mother and daughter sitting together on a couch talking

What’s going on in your child’s head? 

A death in the family will trigger lots of questions. Your child might think: “Grandpa died in his sleep. Does that mean everyone can die in their sleep? What if that happens to Mummy and Daddy? Who will look after me?”. Giving clear, open, and honest information will put his mind at rest.

Children can cope with knowing about death. But since your child thinks literally, it’s crucial that you use words that convey the finality of death. Avoid phrases such as “gone to sleep” or “we’ve lost him”. It’s important that you don’t confuse him or he may worry unnecessarily.

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Since your child may struggle with abstract concepts of time, such as “tomorrow” or “forever”, it’s hard for him to grasp that death is permanent and irreversible. But until he does, he will assume Grandpa is coming back. This limited understanding is also reflected in how he experiences grief. Children go through “islands of grief” – sad one minute, happy the next.

How to respond:

In the moment…

1 Be open. Explain that when someone is dead, their body does not move; they can’t eat, talk, breathe, or feel pain and they don’t wake up. Tell him everyone dies, but you don’t expect it to happen to you for a long time.

2 Give a reason. Explain simply why his grandpa died so he understands there’s a reason his body stopped working: “Grandpa’s heart got worn out because he lived for so long”.

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3 Relate it to life. When explaining death to a child, it can help to link it to other experiences he knows, such as the death of a pet or a plant, so he understands it is final.

4 Ask him if he wants to draw his feelings. Because children tend to put themselves at the centre of stories, they sometimes construct reasons why they might be to blame. In his mind, your child might imagine: “Grandpa died because I didn’t do what I was told”. Ask him if he wants to talk about, draw, or role-play how he feels so you understand his thinking better.

In the long term…

1 Give it time. Your child may want to talk about it for many months, so be prepared for more questions. Children also need tangible ways of mourning: going through family photos, making a keepsake box, releasing a balloon with his name on, or planting a tree can help.

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Taken from ‘What’s my child thinking? Practical psychology for modern parents’ by Tanith Carey (Dorling Kindersley). Click here to buy it online.