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In Theory: How to explain death to a child?

January 07, 2012

The death of a loved one is always a difficult pain for adults to bear, but for children, it can be even worse. And trying to find an explanation for why a friend, relative or pet no longer is around can be very tough for parents.

Advice available online includes explaining death in literal terms, as young children tend to see the world in black and white, and to avoid euphemisms such as “he's gone to sleep,” or “he's gone away.” Explaining that the person's body “stopped working” or that he died because he was very old seem to be the most appropriate strategies. If the person was ill, it's best to emphasize that he or she no longer is in pain.

In religious households, the family's shared faith often can be a great benefit to children, but in homes that aren't particularly religious, suddenly introducing religious concepts can have a frightening effect on kids. Telling a child that a loved one has gone to live with Jesus, or is with God now, can lead to the child asking why the dead person wants to be with Jesus or God more than his family. Saying that the death was “God's will” can be very scary, as children might wonder when God will come for them. Even telling them that the person is in heaven and is happy can send mixed messages, the “happiness” of the deceased contrasting with the grief of the living. In contrast, one parent on a “mothering” message board told her children that we're only in this life for a short time, but after we die, we live forever and one day we'll see the deceased again, a post that garnered many positive responses.

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Is there an easy way to tackle the job of explaining death to a child? Should it be done before the death of a relative or pet?


Explaining the process of illness, dying, and the death of a loved one such as a grandparent or a beloved pet to a young child is a tender and difficult moment.

Depending upon the age of a child, I have used the example of the caterpillar's life cycle. The message is that life never really dies, it just changes form. At one moment in the caterpillar's life, it is in a cocoon and with a little time, it emerges into the beautiful new form of the butterfly and is able to fly away on the breeze with brightly colored wings.

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