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Helping Children Understand Death

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson.

QUESTION:
My husband's father is very ill and is expected to live for only a few more months. I'm uncomfortable about how to talk to our two children about his death. At ages four and seven, how much can they understand and manage?

ANSWER:
For many parents, talking with young children about death is one of the most uncomfortable things they ever do, especially when they are talking about the death of a close family member or loved one. At ages four and seven, your children will have very different understandings of the meaning of death. Before age five or six, children typically do not understand that death is permanent and irreversible. By age seven, however, they know the permanence of death and they recognize that it is universal. At that age, they often have very specific questions about the physical details of dying--questions that are sometimes shocking and disturbing for adults.

When talking with young children about the death of a loved one, adults often are tempted to cushion the blow by using euphemisms, phrases that disguise the harshness of death. But this can backfire. For example, while it sounds very gentle on the surface to say, "Grandpa is going to sleep forever," it may lead a young child to fear going to bed. Or, upon hearing that the angels came and took Grandpa to heaven, a young child may worry that the angels will sneak up and grab her, too.

It is most helpful to explain death to young children in very clear and direct language. For example, you might say, "Grandpa was very sick, and finally his body quit working." Beyond the simple explanation, it is important to express--and allow children to express--sadness and even anger about the loss. This also is a time to teach children your own family's religious beliefs about death and to encourage them to find comfort in those beliefs. For example, within the framework of my own beliefs, I might say, "We are going to miss Grandpa a lot, and we feel very sad right now. But in our family we believe that Grandpa's spirit is with God."

When children first confront the death of someone they know, it is common for them to feel fearful that they, or someone else close to them (especially mom or dad), also will die. One of the best things you can do is allow children to talk about these fears. Although it's important to be honest and acknowledge that everyone dies sometime, you can reassure them that most people live to be pretty old and that you expect to be there to care for them for a long, long time. You also might tell them who would take care of them if something ever did happen to you, reminding them of the other friends and relatives who love them. Children feel most secure when they know that there is a plan for them, and that there is a network of adults who will be there for them no matter what happens.

For now, assuming that your children still can visit Grandpa, encourage them to show their love for him and to tell him about all the ways he is special to them. And after his death, join them in remembering all the things they loved about Grandpa, maybe making a special scrapbook to help them always remember.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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