Talking to children about death.

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Now this may not be our most cheerful post, but I think it’s an important one! Let’s be honest, we have all experienced death, and our children will also experience death. Rather than shelter them from this, it’s better to try and explain it in a way that they’ll understand.

I’ll start by giving a bit of back story, my Mum and stepdads dog (and one of my childhood dogs) got very unwell towards the end of last year. I’d told Grayson that Nanny and Grandads doggy wasn’t well, but that the vet was going to try and make him better.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting better and had to be put to sleep. It was awful, I was very sad and my stepdad and Mum were understandably devastated. Then Grayson started to ask how Henry the dog was getting on at the vets, and I had to have a good think on how Mark and I were going to approach this.

I searched the internet, and so many people had different opinions on it.
Are you honest and explain death, or do you say they’ve gone to live somewhere else? Do you say they’ve gone to heaven? There are so many variables to consider. When I’d come up with an idea of what I wanted to say, I checked Mark was happy with it and that we were on the same page.

I started by sitting down with him, and basically saying that unfortunately Henry the dog had got even more poorly and the vet couldn’t make him better. So he died, and when someone/something dies they don’t come back, and we can’t see them anymore.

I then explained that death can make people very sad, and that Grandad and Nanny were very upset because they loved Henry a lot. They were also happy because it meant that Henry wasn’t poorly anymore, and he wouldn’t feel poorly anymore. I also explained that it’s okay to be upset, but we still have the memories and pictures and videos of Henry for him to see.

I also wanted to put emphasis on the fact that being at the vets doesn’t mean a pet will die. I remember growing up, after our Nan died, my sister was terrified that anyone who went into hospital wouldn’t come out. She was older than Grayson, but I didn’t want Grayson to make that connection.

I gave him a big cuddle, and asked him if he understood or had anything he wanted to ask. I’m very aware that Grayson is still only little, and so it may be difficult for him to grasp. My little angel of a child, asked me if I was sad and gave me a cuddle. He did then ask me a few times if he would be able to see Henry again, and I explained that he wouldn’t be coming back BUT he could see photos if he wanted to.

When he eventually saw his grandparents, he gave them both a cuddle and told them it was okay to be sad. So I definitely think it helped by explaining it to him in terms that he’d understand.

I personally decided to stay clear if anything like heaven, just because we felt it was slightly hypocritical when we air more on the side of atheist than anything else. I also don’t think he’s old enough yet to explain that heaven is something some people believe in and others don’t, just because I’d worried he’d say something to the wrong person!

As awful and sad as it was, I’m glad that it was the death of a pet that we had to explain first before the death of a family member or friend. I think it was a lot easier to initially explain that he would never see a pet again. If you want to try and explain it before a death actually happens, maybe look online for books aimed at children. You could also watch films that have death so that you have an in to start the conversation.

It’s never an easy topic to talk about, but it’s important to try and explain it so that children don’t grow up with a fear of death or associate a certain place with death.

If you have any tips – please include them in the comments below!

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4 thoughts on “Talking to children about death.”

  1. Great post about a very difficult subject matter. In my experience, adults often feel that they need to protect children from knowing about death and its finite nature. For example, I’ve heard people saying that Mufasa is just sleeping in The Lion King. Aside from that being a lie, his death is a pretty critical part of the storyline, so it’s not something to shy away from! I’ve delivered some training to adults in school about supporting children with bereavement and my biggest piece of advice for people is to be factual with their language. Adults hate saying “died” and “dead,” but “gone to a better place” or “passed away” are really confusing concepts for children to grasp and understand.

    • I was really sure to steer clear of saying he was sleeping, because I didn’t want him to associate death with sleep and terrify him! That’s great that you’ve delivered training on it, and that there’s training on offer. I know a lot of parents would benefit massively from something like that, because like you said we want to protect our kids but shying away from words like ‘dying’ or ‘dead’ isn’t going to help them or us.


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