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Helping your child navigate death and grief

Talking to your child about death and grief can be challenging. The best way forward is to answer your child’s questions openly and honestly.

No matter how old you are, death is difficult to talk about, even with adults. Death and grief change human beings in a very significant way. And as parents, we try to protect our children from experiencing that kind of pain at all costs. The truth is, even if we can wrap them in bubble wrap and keep them in the house, they will experience death one way or the other.

In a case where your child asks about the death of a pet or a friend, this is how you can deal with it: 

Think before you answer

It is easy to jump in and give your child a rehearsed textbook response to a death-related question. This can be ineffective when you are not clear on what your child is asking you. “When is grandad coming back?” could be a child not understanding the concept of death at all. It could also be a religious question about whether or not grandad will come back when Jesus does. So ask a clarifying question to figure out which part your child is most concerned about.

Your child might understand death, but just not have the tools to deal with the grief. So, know what is asked to give the best response. Bright Horizons, an organisation that offers child care solutions, recommends that parents clarify the question first because “at the heart of most of these questions are the underlying questions”. Maybe your child wants a guarantee that he/she is safe, and that you won’t die and leave them tomorrow.

Provide simple but honest answers

For younger children, our responses should not complicate things and confuse them further. According to psychologist Benedict Mhlongo, “animated responses are best when providing replies to younger children, this gives them a sense of understanding through imagination and imagery”. The Child Development Institute gives us an example: “Death may be made more clear by explaining it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions – when people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel anymore; when dogs die they do not bark or run anymore; dead flowers do not grow or bloom anymore.” This provides the imagery Mhlongo suggests and its practical examples that children are familiar with.

Use age-appropriate language

When explaining death to your child, be careful not to use language that confuses or scares your child. Using sleep to reference to death may make your child scared of sleeping. Words like “eternal rest” and “rest in peace” make children think that dead people are just sleeping and will one day wake up, according to the Child Development Institute. The Child Development Institute also states that “similarly, if children are told that someone who died went away, brief separations may begin to worry them.”

They will also constantly ask you when grandad is coming back if that’s how his death was explained. This will never be a one-day conversation, and chances are that your children will have more questions at a later stage. Be open to this and help them navigate their world as best as possible.

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