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Gently but Effectively Explaining Loss to a Child

Category: 

Bereavement Relief

Posted On: Jan 12, 2017

Gently but Effectively Explaining Loss to a Child

It's second nature to protect children from the pain, permanence, and ugliness of death. We tell them that their pets went to visit a farm. We say that grandma passed away. We say that Uncle Wade went to heaven. While the use of gentle, euphemistic language is understandable, it does a disservice to our children as they try to cope with the reality of losing someone. We don't give kids enough credit, however. Although it's essential to use age-appropriate language and ideas, you can explain things clearly and concisely so that your children understands what death means.

Your Child Knows More than You Think

Most children are acutely aware of what death is, even if they don't necessarily understand the concept. It's entirely likely that your child has an abstract idea of what death means, so it's your job to explain things clearly. This depends on the age of your child. With older children, it's acceptable to use more straightforward language. At the same time, however, you want to keep things gentle, sympathetic, and compassionate. With younger children, those euphemisms with softer edges do work better, but you must go further.

Don't Equate Death and Sleeping

This is a common mistake. Explaining to a sad child that a loved one has gone to sleep for a very long time or is simply taking an extended nap is a bad idea. At that point, the child believes there's a chance for their loved one to wake up later. You have to make sure that your child understands that death is a permanent state and there's no coming back from it. To do so, you may choose to bring religion into the conversation—e.g., you might tell the child he'll see grandpa in heaven someday—but that's entirely up to you.

Encourage Your Child to Talk

Encourage him or her to ask questions about anything that seems scary or confusing. Let your child cry but don't force him or her to feel sad if the situation isn't concrete in his or her mind. Above all, do not hold your child to the same standard as an adult mourner. Children don't always know how to react to death. They still want to play, have fun, and explore the world around them. You can use that to your advantage as you explain what's happening.

How did you explain death and dying to the young people in your family?