Parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, caregivers and anyone else who spends time around children will know that probing questions from curious young minds can come out of nowhere. And, along with popular questions such as where do babies come from, children will inevitably one day ask about death.
While it is up to parents to decide the details of what and when they want to tell their children, experts are agreed that simple language and honesty are the best approach.
“Between the ages of 5 and 9, most children are beginning to realise that death is final and that all living things die,” says Sneha John, clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic.
“During this stage, children tend to personify death. They may associate death with a skeleton, for example. It is important to keep in mind that all children experience life uniquely and have their own ways of expressing and handling feelings. Some children ask questions about death as early as 3.”
From toddlers to teens: how age affects the concept of death
While children understand different things at different ages, there are milestones during which a child’s curiosity about death will result in questions and initiated conversations.
“Infants and toddlers do not understand death, but they can sense what their caregiver is experiencing,” says John. “Pre-schoolers see death as something temporary. Their misconception is reinforced by cartoons in which characters pop back to life moments after anvils drop on them from the sky. Because young children are concrete thinkers, seeing things exactly as they appear and hearing things literally, it is important that they are told about death in simple, clear language."
School-aged children begin to understand death as a final event but may not understand that it is universal, she says.
“Adolescents understand death on the same level as adults, but they may be resistant to expressing any emotions about it. Because teens are starting to think abstractly, they may struggle to find meaning in death and may be contemplating larger questions about the purpose of life.”
Aim for honest and open conversations
“Answer any questions they have simply and directly using child-friendly language,” says Farah Dahabi, grief and trauma support specialist at The LightHouse Arabia. “You might say: ‘Grandpa has died. We will no longer see him. Would you like to keep a picture of him in your room or take pictures away for now?’”
Hollywood actor John Travolta last week revealed how he spoke about the death of his wife, actress Kelly Preston, with their son. Preston, who died in July 2020 from breast cancer, left behind Travolta and their two children, daughter Ella Bleu, 21, and son, Ben, 10. Their son Jett died on January 2, 2009 aged 16.
“Ben said to me once: ‘Because mom passed away, I’m afraid you're going to,’” Travolta told Kevin Hart on his talk show series Hart to Heart. “I said: ‘Well, it's a very different thing.’ And I went through the differences about my longevity and her limited life. I said: ‘But you know, Ben, you always love the truth and I'm going to tell you the truth about life. Nobody knows when they’re going to go or when they’re going to stay.”
The honest approach, although it might seem extreme to adult ears when talking to children, is the best way.
“Parents should let them know that it is fine to talk about death and dying, and the feelings they might be having,” advises John. “Children need to trust the adults who are taking care of them.”
Use clear language and avoid euphemisms
When it comes to having conversations about death with children, the language you use is vital in both satisfying curiosity and allaying fears.
“Do not use euphemisms like: ‘She has gone to sleep’,’ says John. “These phrases will not be understood and may even generate fears of sleeping or taking long trips. Instead, young children should be told that their loved one has died and that means they will no longer be able to see them. Be prepared for young children to continue to ask where the deceased is or when they are coming back. Continue to give clear messages, which can be softened with the knowledge that memories last forever.”
“Don’t be afraid to use the words ‘death’ or ‘dying’. Dishonesty complicates children’s grief. Their grief is shaped by your honesty, and silence or misinformation fuels fear, confusion and anger," says Dahabi.
Another word to avoid is "lost", which will mean something different to a child than to an adult.
“Saying something like: ‘We lost someone’ will further confuse a young child because they won’t understand what that means,” says John. “It is more useful for adults to warmly and tenderly say: ‘I have some very sad news to share. Your grandparent has died. That means his body stopped working, and we won’t get to see him again.’ It can be hard for parents to use such direct language, but it’s important to be honest and transparent.”
‘It is important for parents to initiate the conversation’
“There weren’t that many questions, it was more she suddenly started being frightened,” says Veronica Giles, a Dubai events manager, of the recent experience her daughter, aged 8, had with discussing death. “She’d go to bed and say: ‘I’m really scared that everyone’s going to die and I’ll be left on my own, and I’ll die and there’ll be no one to look after my brother’.
“I’ve tried to be as open as I can and we’ve talked about it and I try to comfort her, but I recognise there’s a gap in how I’m trying to help, like lying in bed with her until she sleeps,” she says. “So, I posted on Facebook to ask other parents if they were experiencing the same thing and got some really good recommendations. I also want to instil in my children at an early age that they can always speak to someone, even if it’s not me.”
Giles’s communicative approach is recommended by experts.
“It is important for parents to initiate the conversation, keeping in mind the developmental level of the child,” says Dr Ateeq Qureshi, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. “For children older than 3 – and often even for younger ones – a death of someone close will be felt as an absence. In addition, even infants can reference the emotions of other people, particularly family members. Children can feel confused about their own emotions and feelings and those of others around them and parents or family members talking to them will definitely be helpful.”
“Being prepared to talk with the children about their fears is also useful to teach children strategies to manage their anxieties so they don’t become overwhelming,” says John. “When children express a fear, the key is to both listen to the underlying worries and feelings, while also being reassuring and hopeful. For example, the parent might say: ‘It is hard and sad to think of someone close to you dying, but we hope to be around for a long time to come’.”
Alternatively, if children are unable to verbally articulate their fears about death and dying, parents are advised to look out for reactions such as bed-wetting, disrupted sleep or appetite, irritability, nightmares, clumsiness, clinginess, and unexplained physical aches and pains.
Pets, books and other resources
Traditional wisdom used to dictate that having a family pet was a helpful way of introducing a child to the concept of death, especially animals such as goldfish or hamsters who have short lifespans. However, pets are not necessarily required to help teach this valuable lesson about the cycle of life, with many resources, both books and online, now available.
John recommends books including When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief by Marge Heegaard, The Next Place by Warren Hanson, Michael Rosen's Sad Book by Michael Rosen and What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? by Trevor Romain.
“Child-friendly websites that contain video clips such as Sesame Street are also useful,” she says. “There are topics such as ‘expressing emotions’ and ‘giving your heart a little time’.”