Death is not a subject most people are comfortable thinking about let alone talking about. But children don’t have these inhibitions and talking about death is something you may want to be prepared for.
When they first learn the word "death" they don’t hold back with asking questions.
It can usually come out of nowhere and it can be a difficult one to approach. Should you not say too much? Should you tell them it all?
How do you talk to your little one about death?
Why do little ones start asking about death?
When your little one starts playschool it is usually the stage of “why” in general. What most adults tend to block out is that we are surrounded by death all of the time. So are little ones. Characters in movies die, the leaves on the trees die, an insect they stood on died and so on.
Because they’re already so curious about the world, they see our reactions to their questions about death - we may pause or even look nervous and they pick up on that and naturally want to dig deeper.
How do I answer their questions about death?
When they do ask you about death, take it seriously. Be present and available when your child talks about death. Stop what you are doing and listen to them. Be calm and reassuring. Don’t act worried about your child’s mental health. They need you to be the adult here, the strong person in charge who will keep them safe.
Do not use euphemisms.
Children in the 3-6 age range have a very concrete way of thinking. If you say something like, “Our dog passed away” instead of “died,” it may actually confuse your little one. She may think, “Did they go away somewhere? Are they going to come back soon? It can just potentially risk confusion and lack of understanding. Always use the term “died,” even if it feels harsh.
Be simple and clear when talking about death.
Be honest and positive. Little ones usually fear that they or their parents will die soon. Let them know that you plan to stick around for a long, long, time. In young-child terms, it’s sufficiently honest to say you’re planning to live to see them grow up and even have children of their own.
If your little one asks what happens after someone dies, respond as simply as possible, without getting mystical (you don’t want to scare your child further with ideas of ghosts, or have them think people have gone to a ‘better place’ and left them behind). You can assure them that when someone dies they will always be in your memories. “Nana will always be with me, in my heart. She doesn’t come over any more, but she’s still here, in our memories.”
What can I do if my child is anxious about dying?
Start by reassuring your little one that they are safe and healthy. Answer their questions simply and honestly and try to redirect them with a game or a book etc. If you find that their anxiety around death is affecting their everyday life, it is a good idea to get advice from a professional.
The information contained here is not a substitute for medical examination, diagnosis or treatment by a qualified professional. If in doubt, always consult your family doctor.