How to approach and discuss the subject of death with children

What are the life lessons you can teach after encountering a dead coyote?

When my grandmother happened to see one around twelve years ago while she was walking with me, the poor lifeless mammal surprisingly became a catalyst of an emotional family moment. It was her opportunity to talk about death.

You won’t find ‘thanatology’ on the school curriculum, yet it’s the one subject that every kid will have to deal with at some point in life. Thanatology is the little-known word used to represent death education, a taboo in our society, particularly when dealing with a kid. They learn about reproduction and birth in sex education (fairly common in middle school), but either home or school rarely acknowledges our final rite of passage.

It is estimated by a local organization in Texas, a non for profit that works with children, that 10% of kids will experience a parent or sibling death while they’re relatively young. 

Most kids will be aware of the death of someone more distant or will lose a beloved pet. No matter how comfortable we try to make youth, death will always be there to cast a dark, painful shadow.

The modern kid’s relationship to death is likely to be an ignorant one. Many kids are exposed to high levels of glorified death and violence through TV series and games. At Halloween, they play stupid games to defy fears about what lies beyond the deathbed. However, most kids are unlikely to have ever seen an actual dead body or possibly even had a significant conversation with an adult about our ultimate final destiny. It is important that we share the reality of death with kids, not in a morbid, anxious way, but as a natural process and wondrous mystery. We all want kids to inhabit a positive, happy world, but to deny them the reality of death also disallows them something about life’s existence. 

Children’s levels of understanding about death

  • Under two years old: They have a little concept of death but will still miss the deceased and feeling the upset/hollowness.
  • Two to four-year-old children: They find it hard to realize that death is permanent and may ask when the dead relative/parent/pet is coming back.
  • Five to ten-year-old children: They start to understand death’s finality and can have numerous questions about it.
  • Adolescence: The entirety of death is more thoroughly understood. It may be a painful time of raging emotions and a hesitation to open up and share with you.

Here is how you can Teach Children About Death

  1. When talking about death, use clear, simple words with honesty. To break the news that someone has died, or if you want to teach your kid about death as an inevitable destination for everyone that moves or grows, approach your kids in a caring way. Use words that are direct and simple. Be honest about death rather than giving false hopes of dead ones returning back to life someday.
  2. Listen and comfort if your child is in pain knowing a relative, or maybe a pet, or a mosquito, has died. Children are innocent and emotional. Give them the space to talk about their feelings if they encounter a pet’s death, a relative, or maybe a mosquito. Don’t brush aside the precious tears of your kids. When my grandma and I came across a dead coyote twelve years ago, I started to weep. Grandma gave me a tight hug and heard my pain. She had powerful life lessons for me that day. She spoke about the cycles of birth and death that exist in nature. Together, she and I wondered how the flowers first bloom, then die, how winter and autumn follow spring and summer. She discussed the aging process by observing the physiology between young and old, and like the coyote we found dead, there are likely to be animal corpses to contemplate.
  3. Use the words death or dying. Many feel that using the words dead or died makes everyone uncomfortable. So, they prefer using phrases like lost, passed away, crossed over, permanently went to sleep – but research shows that using true-to-life words to describe death helps the eventual grieving process.
  4. Tell your kid what to expect when someone is critically ill. Be realistic, but don’t forget to be gentle.

Dying is inevitable, but you can help your child know about it before any eventuality.

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