Explaining death to children

by ParentalChoice
in Parenting, Children
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Cover of "Bambi (2-Disc Special Platinum ...

Cover of Bambi (2-Disc Special Platinum Edition)

This week has been a sad week in our house. My grandfather died last week; a man I was very close to and who gained nothing but respect and admiration from anyone that he met. He truly was a great lovely man and adored his family completely. He achieved so much in his lifetime both professionally and personally. He will be really missed.

My eldest daughter has been somewhat bemused by her Mummy crying alot and has taken to running around the house finding presents to “make Mummy happy”. This usually makes me laugh and her job is done. However when she has asked “what’s wrong Mummy?”, we have found ourselves slightly at a loss as to what to say to her. She only met Papi (her name for him) a few times but always points him out in the pictures around our house and often asks when will she see him again. Its difficult to know what to say.

According to a leaflet published by Barnardos (, children experience similar feelings to adults following the death of a significant person in their lives.These include shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness and fear. However, they often express their feelings differently from adults. Adults need to help them understand these feelings and the concept of death and this is best done by giving the child clear, honest information on a frequent basis. Their tips include:

  • Try to use the word ‘’death’’ or ‘‘dead’’ rather than phrases such as ‘‘gone to sleep’’, ‘‘lost’’or ‘’gone to a better place’’.These phrases cause confusion for young children and can lead to unnecessary anxiety.
  • Young children need to be told repeatedly that when someone dies they can never come back. It is important to explain that the dead person doesn’t eat, sleep, or feel any pain.
  • Children benefit from having the cause of the death explained to them.This should be done simply and in a language that the child understands.There is a risk that if children are not given a clear explanation, they may blame themselves.
  • It is important that a child understands that everyone dies at some time, but most people don’t die until they are older. Following a death, children, can become very anxious and often have difficulty separating from family members. It helps them to regain confidence in the world if they can understand the concepts of death.
  • Children need to hear that nothing we think or say can cause death, often children blame themselves when someone special dies. It is important to emphasise to them that it was not their fault.

Its difficult to know how early in life children can understand the concept of death. I remember my niece watching Bambi for the first time and being very confused and concerned when Bambi’s mother was shot and didn’t get up again. She was 3 at the time. My eldest is 2 and I’m not sure that she really understands. Again according to Barnados, children of different ages cope with death in different ways and for each age group time has to be taken to ensure that communication is clear and that that person always feels loved and protected and made to understand that it is not their fault and nothing to do with them. Rather it is a natural part of life. I don’t think my daughter understands that Papi is dead but rather she is just concerned that Mummy is upset. So now when I feel emotional I take myself off to the bathroom for a few minutes.

However on the other hand maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about how my daugher will cope. At the weekend, my husband explained to Daughter No. 1 that Mummy was upset because Papi was dead and had gone to heaven and that we would be going to church to say goodbye to him. Daughter No. 1 piped up and said “Oh yes Mummy we’ve been to church and a man poured water on my sister’s face. He was funny. Will he pour water on Papi’s face too? I don’t think he wants to be wet in heaven. He must take an umbrella.”

Well that definitely puts a practical slant on things! Plus it made Mummy “happy”. 🙂

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