Why children need to talk about dying
We can't protect children from death. They encounter it all the time - whether it's a mouse brought in by the cat or a grandparent dying. At an early age, they can form their own beliefs around it.
If we leave children alone with fears and misunderstandings regarding death, they can grow and grow. Children are more open to conversations about death than adults often realise. We need to talk to children about dying so that the myths don't take over, and so that they don't feel isolated or guilty about what they think.
It's much better to have helped children have an understanding of death, funerals, burial and cremation before being confronted with these things when someone close to them dies.
How to get started
Try to make sure they feel comfortable asking questions or expressing their opinions on death, and try to let them lead the conversation. Talk about death as a part of life and how life and death go together. Use the natural world to demonstrate the way in which all things die - flowers withering, leaves falling.
You can use these opportunities:
- Books about dying tailored for children (you can find a list on the Dying Matters website);
- Finding a dead animal or the death of a pet can be an opportunity to start a conversation about dying. Let the child be there when it is buried, and carry out rituals like planting flowers;
- Involve children in family activities including attending funerals, if they want to. It's an opportunity for them to say goodbye. Tell them what to expect;
- Memory boxes can be a good way of helping children remember loved ones who have died.
Having a conversation about death with children
Children may ask practical questions instead of talking about their feelings. Sometimes these might sound strange. What's it like inside a coffin? What does a dead body really look like? Will I be a ghost when I die?
These are entirely sensible things to wonder - and it can be reassuring to a child if you discuss them, rather than dismissing them as silly.
A few tips
- Listen carefully so you know exactly what they mean. If you don't know the answer, say so;
- Don't worry if you think you answered the question badly - it's more important to the child that you've paid attention;
- Try not to look uncomfortable answering their questions - it may create the impression that talking about these things is not allowed;
- Try and answer their question as soon as they've asked it - children's attention span is limited. A series of short conversations is often easier than long sessions;
- Be clear and direct in your language - using phrases such as 'passed away' rather than 'died' can leave them confused;
- Children understand words very literally, and you may need to check that they haven't misunderstood;
- There's no harm in a child seeing that you are sad or crying if someone has died. It may help them know their own grief is acceptable.
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COVID-19 is going to mean some people dying before their time, or some of us not being able to visit someone for a last time. It's going to affect us in ways we're only just starting to understand.
To acknowledge this, Dying Matters have launched the #BeforeTheirTime campaign. This is so people can share their experiences and talk through concerns in this difficult time.
As well as the hashtag, we will also be using the below image, which you can download if you wish at the bottom of the page. You can use the sunflower emoji on your phone if you are posting messages from there or want to send messages of solidarity. Please do follow along and contribute on social media.
We have produced a special graphic which you can use. Links to download them in various formats are below.
BEFORE THEIR TIME - .jpg
BEFORE THEIR TIME - .eps
BEFORE THEIR TIME - .png