Talking to children about death when a family member or pet has passed away will help them develop emotional coping skills for later on in life. Unpleasant as it may be death is an inescapable fact of life – and one that many children will be faced with at some time or another.
When talking to children about death try to simply offer the the most honest explanation that you can. It is important to try to give answers that they will understand and to not overwhelm them by giving them too much information. And it’s also perfectly okay not to have all the answers – you can simply say something like: “I don’t really know the answer to that, but I’ll tell you what I believe…”
Keep in mind that very young children may not realise that death is permanent – this realisation usually only dawns between the ages of 5 and 9 years and before then children may simply expect the deceased person to stand up or come back again. To avoid further confusion it is very important not to use euphemisms for death. Saying that someone is sleeping might make children afraid to go to sleep. Similarly saying that they “went away” may make them fearful of being separated from you, even for short periods.
Because young children may not fully grasp the concept of death they may show no reaction at all to hearing that someone has died, or on the other hand may severely overreact to everyday situations because their entire world has been turned upside down and they may experience the world as an unpredictable and scary place. They may also act strangely for a while, regressing in their behaviour or playing games that centre around death or funerals – this may all seem somewhat morbid but it may play a vital role in helping them process the concept of death in their own way.
Try your best to get your child’s life back to “normal” as soon as possible as the familiar routines will help her gain a sense of predictability and security again.
I’m often asked my advice on whether children should attend the funeral or not. I believe that it really is up to each parent to decide whether their child is ready and also for the child to decide whether they want to go. If you will be taking your child to the funeral be very sure to prepare her adequately beforehand for what will happen and for the fact that people may be upset and crying. If you are not letting your child attend the funeral, try to include her in some sort of a ceremony, even if it only the lighting of a candle or saying a prayer, as this final ritual may help her find closure.
A period of mourning is normal and to be expected – but if your child continues to be extremely anxious or upset or seems depressed even after a reasonable period of mourning has passed you might need to seek professional counselling to help her deal with the death.