Every parent knows that some things are pretty easy to explain to children and others seem almost impossible. For many parents, death falls squarely into the second category. It is not that death cannot be satisfactorily explained to a child, but to do so requires the adult doing the explaining to match the explanation to the child’s level of development and to their capacity to understand.
Death is difficult to explain because, in part, it is often difficult for even adults to really understand.
I am not talking about telling a child about what to believe about what happens after death, but about the concrete, physically observable and often emotionally traumatic phenomenon of the end of a life. For toddlers, whose thinking tends to be quite concrete and whose language development is limited, a simple explanation, using as few words as possible, is usually most appropriate. They may well get very sad if a person they know and see often dies, but that is usually partly because they don’t really understand where they went and because they are responding, empathically and automatically, to the sadness of those around them.
There are simple books explaining, in toddler terms and pictures, that all living things have a beginning, a life and an end. The end is what we call death. It is not a punishment. It is the end of a life. Such a book can be helpful. Lacking one as a visual aid, a caring adult may explain, simply, that the person is no longer alive. That all living things, including people, die. When they die, they no longer breathe, play or work.
Their bodies have stopped working and stopped. Most young children will benefit from the assurance that this usually only happens to people who are either very old or have been very sick. The assurance, though admittedly oversimplified and not completely accurate or inclusive, is necessary because youngsters will often fear that they (or others close to them) may proceed to die now, too.
Once children have reached school age, they can be expected to understand a bit more and the explanation can be more specific. A child in primary school can often be told, specifically, what a person (or pet) died as a result of. Kids often surprise us by how much they already seem to know that we did not personally tell them. Even so, for lack of a developmentally accurate explanation, wrong.
Conclusions can be drawn that may distort their beliefs about life as well as about death.
A helpful comparative reference can be found in parents responding, in the best way they can, to a young child’s question about where babies come from. A three year old van handle and understand one kind of explanation ‘” which is best always true but not so detailed or complete as to frighten or confuse the child ‘” while the same question asked a few years later would require a different and more complete response.
Kids know, once they are 4-5 years old when their questions are being blown off by an adult who either does not want to or is unable to answer an honest question. In the long run, as the child’s curiosity and intellect develops, it is generally best to give honest, but limited, answers. Categorical responses like “You’re not old enough to understand that yet.” Of worse yet, “Just because” tend to mute a child’s natural need to learn and to be able to trust the adults they are dependent upon for good information in a form they can understand.
A three year old can handle and understand one kind of explanation but the same question coming a few years later requires a different, more complete, answer. At each point a child’s honest questions need to be answered. If you are stumped about how to answer one (and there are LOTS of tough ones: “Why don’t you and daddy live together anymore,” “Why do we need another baby in the house?”, “Why are some kids so mean?”. Etc.) but all are worthy of answers.
If a good answer eludes you, please make it your business to find out enough to offer the child a good one. Their growing intelligence and your credibility as an adult guide to life are a couple of the very important things that are at stake.