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Talking to Children about Dying

Talking to Children about Dying
by Susan Wall, LCSW

“Little pitchers have big ears” Children know when serious matters are occurring. To enable children to feel safe in the family, it helps to explain to them that a family member is seriously ill, that they will be dying, that the family member will be well taken care of to keep them comfortable, and that the child is loved and will be taken care of now and in the future.

Children understand at a very early age that death occurs. They see it in plants, animals, and cartoons. Talking with children about serious illness and death can be very difficult, especially if the child is very young, if the dying person is a primary caregiver, or if they have had little experience with death and dying in the past.  

Telling the child about the loved one’s illness and dying, helps the child distinguish between illness the child might get and the illness of the dying loved one. Providing frequent, brief, focused opportunities to explain about the loved one’s status and answer the child’s questions and voice observations, allows the child to know they are important and safe.

I suggest using the Sesame Street explanation of “alive” to then explain to children the meaning of death. In a particular episode of Sesame Street, Big Bird and Snuffy, an elephant-like creature, are searching, like Sherlock Holms detectives, for signs of life. Life is when something eats, breaths, and grows, they decide. They search the neighborhood and come across various objects (or people or muppets) and each time ask the same questions; “Does it eat?” “Does it breathe?” “Does it grow?” If they agree that all of the answers are affirmative, they determine, “It’s alive!” By reviewing these questions, a child is able to determine that when eating stops, and breathing stops, and growth stops, then a person is dead. It is a simple explanation, but it is clear and concise.

Confusing to children is the concept of heaven, where often people are said to go and “be with God.” Because if when there is a memorial service or
funeral service, there may be casket with a body, or an urn with ashes, and
then a child has to try to ask tearful and sad grown-ups why the adult is in an urn or why their body is in a casket and not with God after all. Keep explanations simple and focused. Distinguishing between the physical care of the body, before and after death, and discussing separately where a person’s soul goes; their thoughts, feelings, dreams and memories that our spiritual and religious beliefs carry us. ….