The death of an injured baby bunny found in our yard brought many questions about death from my four year old. We have never discussed death in much detail before. She knew that people and animals died, but struggled with the idea that it was final. For several hours after, she would tell me that "the bunny had died, but would come back when its not dead anymore." I realized that it was time to discuss death in more detail with her but I wasn't really sure how. How do you explain death to a young child so that they understand? Do I just explain death itself or should I also talk about heaven? I wasn't sure how much her little brain could absorb so I turned to the experts.
Michael Towne, a child-life specialist from University of California–San Francisco Medical Center explains that most preschoolers can't grasp that death is permanent, inevitable, and happens to everyone. They may believe that the deceased can still eat, sleep, and do normal things-except they do it from up in the sky or down in the ground. No matter how many times you explain it, preschoolers really can't understand what causes death and think of it as something temporary or reversible.
According to Talking to Your Preschooler About Death from familyeducation says you should try to bring up the topic of death to your child in a neutral way before a tragedy forces you to. They suggest using the following situations to bring up death in a non threatening way:
- Your child notices a squashed squirrel in the middle of the road
- One of your house plants withers and dies
- Leaves fall from the trees in Autumn
- Mufasa from the Lion King gets trampled under a stampede while Simba watches helplessly
- A child delights in grinding an ant under his shoe
- A family pet dies or gets put to sleep
- A relative (who was not close to the child) dies
Tips for Explaining Death to a Preschooler from babycentre gives the following suggestions:
- Don't dodge questions
- Give brief, simple answers
- Keep the reasons simple
- Express your own emotions
- Avoid euphemisms- Like "Resting in Peace" or "Eternal Sleep"
- Tread carefully when discussing God and Heaven
- Expect the subject to come up repeatedly
- Remember the deceased
- Don't downplay the death of a pet
- Don't try to be perfect
Circle of Life
The truth is, death is an inescapable fact of life. We must face it and so must our children. By talking to our children about death, we can relieve some of their fears and provide them with information, comfort, and understanding. Even if you haven't yet had this discussion with your child, they probably know more than you think. Long before we realize it, children become aware of death. Its everywhere. They see dead animals on the side of the road, read fairy tales and see it in television and video games. Children are great observers but sometimes what they see and hear gets mixed up in their minds and its our job as parents to help them to understand what they are seeing and hearing.
A young child can have quite a wild imagination which can lead to fears for the child. The most important thing to do is be honest with your child and encourage questions. Create an atmosphere of comfort and openness. Let your child know that there is no one right or wrong way to feel. Sharing rather than hiding our feelings helps our kids to understand feelings. Death is a very touchy subject- One that is hard for us as parents to approach.
How did you bring up the topic of death with your child? What ways did you help your child get through the death of a family pet or loved?