Talking to children about death…

The death of such a well-known and respected figure such as HM the Queen means that talk of death is suddenly everywhere, and for many children this is a new experience. It can be difficult when children start asking about death. It might be triggering for us, we might wish children didn’t have to face such emotional distress, or we might simply feel unsure of how to answer their questions.

Here are some ideas on how to have conversations with your child at this time:

Children aged under 3 years may not be that aware of the meaning of death but they do still pick up on emotions. It is important to be mindful of what we say around young children. They may show us their confusion or uncertainty through their behaviour rather than by asking questions as an older child would. They may have more tantrums, cry more, seem angry or withdraw a little. What to do –

– Try and keep routines and rhythms consistent for young children so they feel the reassurance of life continuing

– Understand there is a valid reason for their increased emotions, clinginess or tantrums, and increase our responsiveness, love, nurture and reassurance

Around 3 years of age children become more consciously aware of what is going on and they may start asking questions such as “where have they gone?” and “what is death?” They may also start role playing about death to help them process their understanding and their feelings around it. This can be hard to witness but it is a normal and healthy way for children to process their experiences. What to do –

– Be honest about what you personally believe because this will be authentic for children. For example if you have a faith and believe in an afterlife, talk to children about this. If you don’t, you can say something like, “When someone dies it means their body doesn’t work any more, they are no longer able to breathe, walk or talk. It means they can’t come back.” This might sound scary but honesty is actually far more reassuring than false hope or confusion

– Reassure them they can ask you questions as many times as they want to – and keep answering them for as long as they need you to.

– Use real words like “died” and “death” rather than “gone to a better place” or “passed away” – it prevents unnecessary confusion and distress.

– Use books such as “Badger’s Parting Gifts” and “The Day the Sea Went Out and Never Come Back” to support their understanding.

– Keep focusing on feeling regulation and supporting their big emotions when they appear.

Between 5 and 7 years of age children start to have more understanding of what death really means. They will need similar explanations as younger children aged 3-5 years and will probably need to continue asking questions to clarity their understanding and for reassurance. They will want to know what you believe, and will also be curious about different beliefs around death. They may show their confusion or distress through behaviour regressions. What to do –

– Answer their questions as often as needed and as honestly as possible, keeping information age appropriate

– Validate their feelings and support them in how they are feeling

– If you don’t have a particular faith or believe, you might want to explain, “No one really knows what happens when we die, but we do know it means the person is no longer in pain.” (For example after an illness).

– If they want to know what it is like to die, you could explain that some people who have had near death experiences have said it was actually quite a peaceful feeling.

Death is difficult to talk about because it brings home our own fears of losing loved ones and means we face our own mortality. The thing is, children are just looking for answers. They want to know what we believe, what we know, what we don’t know…so the best thing we can do is answer them honestly and authentically, and support their emotions with reassurance, love and understanding.