How to talk about death with your children
Death can be hard concept to comprehend. It’s one of the most binary parts of life. Like the flick of a switch; on then off. As adults death is usually an unwelcome subject to discuss; no one really likes to think or talk about the end of their lives, they prefer to focus on the here and now, the living part of life, and rightly so. Life is to be lived! Not spent pining over our unavoidable eventual demise!
When it comes to talking to children about death, the subject becomes even harder to broach. Even explaining to children that yes, one day their parents will leave this earth, but potentially only when they too are adults with children and even grandchildren of their own, can be a very emotional conversation to have. Young children struggle to differentiate emotionally between the present and the future. They can’t fathom that one day they won’t need their parents like they do today. They can’t conceive that one day they will want to move out and live fully functioning lives of their own.
Having the conversation around death and dying with your children becomes even more necessary when someone in the immediate family becomes unwell. Suddenly, due to illness, death becomes a more immediate possibility.
If you are faced with explaining to a child that a family member is ill and could possibly die, be sure to explain what to expect when it comes to treatment and recovery. While you may explain “Grandad has a bit of cancer and may die” it can be shocking for a child to see Grandad in the midst of chemotherapy, frail and bald. The child may assume Grandad is about to die and not realise that he is in fact going through treatment with a high prognosis of recovery. To prevent your child suffering in silence, it pays to talk the whole process through.
The same can be said about sugar coating the truth. If the prognosis is not good and it is even a terminal illness, then let them be aware of that. It not only gives them time to take it all in, it also lets them know that their time with that relative is limited, they need to make the most of it while they can.
Why talk about death?
It may seem like an unnecessary, emotional discussion to have. But the important part about speaking to your children about the possibility of death, is that they know what to expect if an ill family member does pass away. It also gives you a chance as a family to talk about how the family member in question would like to be celebrated after their death.
Regardless of what you may believe happens to our souls when we expire, one thing is the same no matter what your religion; your body stays here on earth and the remains must be dealt with one way or another.
It’s only after raising the subject that you may learn that your plan to be cremated in a bid to reduce cost and cemetery overcrowding, may not bode well with your kids, who would prefer to have a headstone to visit to remember you by. Or perhaps your plan to have your remains made into sacred death beads, a custom in Korea, may not be quite the heirloom your children would want to hand down over generations. The fact is, you don’t know until you raise the subject.
It’s also a good time to discuss what everyone would be happy with when it comes to funeral arrangements. While you may want a raucous party to celebrate your life, complete with mariachi band and acrobats, your family may want a more tender affair; guests dressed in traditional black, sombrely but respectfully saying goodbye.
It may also surprise you how much your child understands about death. If they’ve ever lost a pet, then they will know that that pet is no longer a part of family. You all still remember them and talk about them, and laugh about the time he ate Dad’s slippers and then vomited them up. But they know that Fluffy died and was buried under the lemon tree. This is ideally how children would feel when they need to speak to a parent about the death of a loved one; they’ll know that death is a part of life and when people pass on, they never leave our hearts. They’ll know that when they miss their relative and want to talk about them, they can. That there is nothing wrong with that.
Choose your language carefully
When it comes to talking about awkward things with those we love, we can tend to speak in euphemisms, hashing over the words that come with a punch. Like “death,” “dying,” or “cancer.” Children take things literally. If we tell them that “Dad has gone to a better place” then they could very well think that Dad has just gone to live in Hawaii with a family that does their chores when they’re asked to. If we tell them that Grandma has just “gone to sleep” then they may expect her to wake up one day.
The Child Development Institute recommends explaining to young children what death means in a sense of basic functional limitations, such as:
“When people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel any more; when dogs die they do not bark or run anymore; dead flowers do not grow or bloom anymore.”
It pays to explain that their loved one has died and while their body is still here, the person they were is not coming back.
All children process this information in different ways. Some children will immediately ask more questions. Others will not. They may go inward and try to process this information internally. There is not right and wrong way to grieve. Though a child who may not understand the explanation verbally may find other more physical examples suddenly sink in. Such as at the funeral itself, when the casket is lowered into the ground, or when Grandad and his things are suddenly absent at Sunday dinner.
The best thing you can do as a parent is make death a subject that they are able to talk about freely. That way when they are grieving and want to work through it emotionally, they will feel supported and safe to do so.
When it comes to discussing death with your adult children, the conversation maybe slightly easier to bear. And if the idea of leaving your loved ones with a hefty bill keeps you up at night, then that is a conversation worth having. Discussing your choice to invest in funeral insurance is wise, perhaps your wishes for your nominated funeral cover is not for them to flounder it on a fancy casket and a sad reception, but instead to be cremated, so that your family can then take a trip to Fiji to scatter your ashes at your favourite holiday destination. Either way, it pays to have the talk sooner, rather than later.