What is Death?
Explaining death to young children is essential to their grieving process and comprehension of the situation.
"You want to be truthful and honest with the children, and you want to tell them what's happened, factually," says Vicky Ott, Program Coordinator for Fernside Center for Grieving Children in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While Ott encourages families to share their spirituality and religious beliefs with their children, she says it is crucial that death is explained matter-of-factly: "the body doesn't work, the person doesn't eat, doesn't go to the bathroom…." Avoid confusing euphemisms such as "passed on" or "gone away." Telling a four-year-old that Grandma "has gone to sleep," for example, suggests that Grandma will eventually wake up, or that the child might go to sleep and never wake up. If death resulted from illness, explain that most sick people get better; people don't die from colds or sore throats.
"Give them the information, but obviously in a developmentally appropriate way," says Ott. She says most children don't really understand the finality of death until around age six, thinking it is reversible and temporary; preschoolers may believe the person who died is going to come back. Be prepared for a child to ask repeatedly about the death and if the deceased person will return.
Ott also stresses that children should get their information first-hand, from a parent. "If they hear [that a loved one has died] from the wrong person, you have a big trust issue. Don't tell details they aren't ready for; let them be your guide. It's OK to say 'I don't know the answer to that question.'"
"I remember thinking if I had gone to visit my dad more in the hospital, he would not have died."- Kathleen
It is common for young children to feel guilty and responsible when a loved one dies. Many preschool-aged children believe in 'magical thinking,' that is if they wish something to be true, it can happen, says Ott. Magical thinking can cause children to blame themselves for a death—"I wished Daddy would just go away when I was mad, and now he is dead,"—or let them believe that enough good thoughts can reverse a death. Parents need to reassure children that death is not their fault.