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Bereavement and Loss Guidance

Explaining death and dying to children: Child Bereavement Trust

 

Is it good to be honest with children about death and dying?

Children and young people want and need adults to be honest, particularly when talking about death and grief. If we do not tell them the truth, their active imaginations can fill in the gaps often with more frightening misconceptions.

More on telling a child that someone has died

 

How can I explain to a child what happens when someone dies?

A simple biological explanation of death is helpful: the heart stops beating, the lungs do not work so the person cannot breathe, and their brain stops working. Referring to the body left as an empty shell can help them to understand that the person is no longer alive as they knew them. If the family holds any beliefs, these can then be introduced.

It can be helpful to explain that when someone dies, they cannot feel hot or cold, hungry or thirsty, and they are not in pain. It is also important for them to understand that the person will stay dead, however much we may wish them to come back to life as they were.

More guidance on children's understanding of death at different ages

 

What sort of language should I use to explain death and dying to a child?

Phrases such as ‘gone to sleep’ or ‘passed away’ or words such as ‘gone’ or ‘lost’ may feel kinder but are misleading and can lead to confusion; for instance, we encourage children to 'find' things that they have 'lost' so they may continue to look for the person who has died. Similarly, using the term ‘gone to sleep’ may lead them to associate going to sleep with dying which can result in anxieties at bedtime.

     

    What if a child feels upset when we talk about death or dying?

    Talking about death can elicit emotional reactions. This can feel difficult, but by acknowledging this and talking openly about death and grief, it can help children and young people to trust in the adults around them. It will also encourage them to ask questions, share any worries and express their feelings.

     

    What should I say to a child if I feel upset when I talk about death or dying?

    Children learn from the adults around them, so if you experience an emotional reaction, it is best to acknowledge your feelings while reassuring them that you will be OK in a moment. This will help them to know that it is OK to express their own feelings.

     

    How can I answer questions children often ask about death or dying?

    Although it can feel quite daunting, it is important to answer any questions as honestly and fully as possible. Although it might seem tempting to try and distract children and young people, this may actually cause them to become more anxious than hearing the truth.

    Will I die? Will you die? Why do people die? When will I die?

    To answer these questions, it can help to explain that all living things die, that this is part of the cycle of life. As living things, people will also die. You can reassure them that most people are very old when they die. It may help to remind them of all the people they have in their lives and to think about all the things they wish to achieve in their lives, places they might like to visit, jobs they might want to do, their hopes and dreams.

    What happens when you die? Where do you go to when you die?

    It can help to start with a simple biological explanation of death; the heart stops beating, the person stops breathing and their brain stops working. Younger children might like to feel their breath going in and out and their heart beating to help with their understanding. It can also be helpful to refer to the body as being a bit like an empty shell. Some young people want to know what happens to the body, for example between death and a funeral. This might naturally lead to a discussion about beliefs, ceremonies or rituals.

    You might say, ”Some people believe… and others think …“, or that you are not sure what happens when someone dies. It can be a good opportunity to ask them what they think and have a discussion with them.

    "Can we stop people from dying?"

    It is important to remind them that people die because we are living things, just like plants and animals. For younger children, it might help to talk about most people being old and their bodies being worn out, but younger people may die if they have an illness or serious injuries which cannot be cured.

    For older children, it can be helpful to discuss how we cannot change the fact that someone has died but we might consider what we can learn about improving treatments or safety guidance to help others in the future.

    Encourage young people to consider what sort of things help them to live healthy lives – such as eating well, keeping safe and looking after themselves and others. Explain that medicines and treatments for illnesses and accidents are always being improved and people today live longer and healthier lives than they did in the past.

    "Why are you crying?"

    If you experience an emotional reaction when talking about death with a child or young person, it is best to acknowledge your feelings while reassuring them that you will be OK in a moment. You might tell them that you also find talking about it difficult, or that you also feel sad. This will help them to know that it is OK to express their own feelings.

     

    Please see our range of short guidance films on related topics: 

    Children's understanding of death at different ages

    Children under 2 years of age

    Babies and young children have no understanding of the concept of death yet, long before they are able to talk, babies are likely to react to upset and changes in their environment brought about by the absence of a significant person who responded to their needs for care and nourishment on a daily basis. They will also be impacted by emotional withdrawal that may happen if a parent or main carer is bereaved.

    Up to the age of 6 months, babies will experience a sense of abandonment and insecurity which may result in increased crying and disruption of sleep and feeding. From around the age of 8 months or so, babies begin to develop a ‘mental image’ of the person who has died and have a sense of ‘missing them’. Babies at this age may cry more or become more withdrawn; they may lose interest in toys or food and, as they develop motor skills and language, may call out for or search for the person who has died. You can help by giving lots of reassurance, and by keeping to normal routines as much as possible.

    Children aged 2 to 5 years

    Young children are interested in the idea of death in birds and animals. They can begin to use the word ‘dead’ and develop an awareness that this is different to being alive. Children of this age do not understand abstract concepts like ‘forever’ and cannot grasp that death is permanent. Their limited understanding may lead to an apparent lack of reaction when told about a death, and they may ask many questions about where the person who has died is and when that person will come back.

    Children at this age expect the person to return. Young children tend to interpret what they are told in a literal and concrete way; therefore, it is important to avoid offering explanations of death such as ‘lost’, ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep’ that may cause misunderstandings and confusion. Provide honest answers to their questions but do not feel you have to tell them everything in detail or all at once. Information can be built on over time.

    Children may have disrupted sleep, altered appetite, less interest in play and may become more anxious about separation even when being left with familiar adults. There may be regression in skills such as language or toilet training.

    Children of primary school age

    Between the ages of 5 and 7 years, children gradually begin to develop an understanding that death is permanent and irreversible and that the person who has died will not return. Children who have been bereaved when they were younger will have to re-process what has happened as they develop awareness of the finality of death.

    Children’s imagination and ‘magical thinking’ at this age can mean that some children may believe that their thoughts or actions caused the death, and they can feel guilty. Not being given sufficient information in age-appropriate language can lead them to make up and fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

    Children increasingly become aware that death is an inevitable part of life that happens to all living things. As a result, they can become anxious about their own, and others’, health and safety. 

    Children at this age need honest answers to their questions that can be built on over time, and opportunities to express their feelings. They can need reassurance that nothing they said or thought caused the death.

    As a school community we have sadly experienced loss recently , here are some links to support families.

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