Death is a difficult subject to approach with a child especially when someone close to them passes away. You have your own feelings to process and must also provide empathy and strength for your child. Since Dr. Rusty passed recently, I thought this would be an ideal time to review how to speak with children of different ages about death. In my experience, an open, honest, and direct communication based on their developmental understanding is best.
PRESCHOOLERS – The butterfly won’t fly anymore.
Preschoolers have partial logic so when explaining death they may not grasp its permanency. They understand some of the realities of life but can quickly leap into fantasy. Often only a small thread separates the two worlds.
I recommend using the actual words like death yet illustrate the meaning by referring to familiar activities to help them process. For instance, you may tell them that grandpa died this morning and he will not breathe, eat, sleep, or wake up anymore. You can also include other real-world realities that they may have previously experienced like when we found a butterfly on the sidewalk, it had died too. The butterfly will not fly anymore. Preschoolers learn by repetition of simple examples presented in a familiar way.
Death is not a singular event. It is also an adjustment in life and feelings. Make sure you speak about your emotions and help them describe theirs as well. Drawing and free play outside may serve to create expression since connecting words and feelings may elude them.
GRADE SCHOOL – Everyone dies in their time.
Grade-schoolers have concrete thinking rather than imaginative reality like preschoolers. They understand the words used to describe death and its permanency. They will be sad without additional explanation. They may not understand the profound weight this carries for you and the changes this means for their lives.
While they have concrete logic, they do not understand nuanced values and abstract thinking. They see things very black and white. Children at these ages understand that everyone will one day die, while at the same time believing that death does not apply to them. They lack the abstract.
Children can have widely varying behavioral responses as they process their feelings. Often their emotions and words are disconnected. Parents are advised to talk about their feelings as a way to role model growth in identifying and processing emotions. A parent may want to discuss how a death will affect the child’s life. Children may have questions and it is important to try your best to listen to the questions, the reasons behind the questions, and be generous in your honesty and openness. Again, reassure them with presence and love.
TEENAGERS – An invitation to talk.
Teenagers are a narcissistic form of ourselves. They need boundaries and expectations more than monitoring. Structure and continuity are important for all ages, but especially so for teens. An invitation to talk without expectation is a powerful communication tool and this may be all they need.
Teens may move quickly in and out of grief. They understand death through past experiences, music, film, school, religious instruction, and the lens of current events. What they may not do is synchronize the importance of the death into their life. This is normal. Almost everything to a teen is seen through their needs only. Give them space to grieve in this way while being open to their agenda on when they want to talk.
Remember that you are permanently carving their eventual coping skills through your example. The important thing is to reassure preschool-aged children with your presence and love, help your child connect feelings and words, and wait for your teen to cope.