I remember that day clearly. As I drove my son (then 6 years old) home from school, I came to a stop at a traffic light.
“Hey dad,” his little voice snuck to my ear from the back seat.
“Yeah, buddy?” I replied, casually.
“What happens to us when we die?” he asked me.
Oh no, I wasn’t ready for this conversation yet! I stared straight ahead as we waited there for the light to turn green, and I felt as though my silence was lasting far too long. I needed to reply. As my mind panicked, searching for a way to shape the perfect response to one of mankind’s most profound and eternal questions, I came up with the perfect dad response: “What do you think happens?”
“Well,” he said, “In school today, we learned that when plants and trees die, they return to the soil and come back as a new plant or tree. I think that’s what happens to us when we die – we come back as a new person.”
My mouth smiled wide and my eyes began to well up a bit. What a simultaneously insightful and beautiful observation coming from my young son, who previously had such astute pronouncements as, “farts are funny.” Proudly, I replied, “There are a lot of people who think that’s exactly what happens to us. But, nobody really knows for sure.”
Death is a challenging subject to discuss and accept, for both adults and children. When it comes to introducing the concept to a child, it’s not always easy to know what to say. After all, death can be emotionally painful to deal with, and as parents we instinctively want to protect our children from pain. It’s difficult for us to tell a child that somebody they love is gone forever (be it the death of a family member or beloved pet), especially in a way that their still-developing minds can process.
Before I go any further, I’ll tell you that I’m not a professional grief counselor (far from it). That’s why I chose to speak to Emilio Parga, the Founder and Executive Director of The Solace Tree, a Reno-based non-profit organization that helps children, teens and adults to cope with the death of loved ones. Parga provided me with valuable guidance on this topic, and I’d love to pass it along to you, should you be faced with the seemingly inevitable moment(s) you’ll talk with your children about death.
Be honest about death
In the event of a death, parents are often uncomfortable talking about it with their children, so they “sugarcoat” the information. Unfortunately, while we’re trying to protect our children, it simply results in their inability to get the accurate information they need. Parga points out that we should never underestimate a child’s ability to feel, think, or grieve. Answer questions openly, honestly, and simply.
You can begin teaching your child about death before a loved one dies. You can prepare by asking yourself these three questions:
- What is your (family’s) belief system?
- Have you dealt with some of your unresolved grief from past deaths?
- Where is your child cognitively?
Use nature as a guide
A dead bird/animal or the death of a pet can be a good time to talk with your child about the concept of death.
Separate fact from fiction
Help your child understand the difference between a real death and one seen on TV, in a movie or in a video game. Children may be confused by characters who have died on television and then show up later on another episode, or died in a video game only to have “another life.”
If your family has religious beliefs, you might talk to your children by saying something like, “We know God loves each of us. He wants us to live with him. God can be trusted. [Your loved one] is now with God.” (Note: One must be careful when explaining this approach, and God has to have been discussed in the past.)
The scientific/physiological approach to explaining death is, “When someone dies, his/her heart stops beating; they can no longer feel, hurt or see. Their heart cannot beat again and they cannot return.”
Encourage your children to talk about their feelings and fears. Let them know it’s alright to cry or show emotions. It’s important for children to know that it’s possible for them to feel sad or angry without losing control.