How to talk to your child about dying
Recently, my six-year-old went through a phase of worrying about dying. She asked how it felt, and whether you can move and if your eyes are closed. She told me that her worry about dying seeped into everything she did – nudging at her consciousness while she was watching TV, reading or trying to nod off to sleep.
We’re lucky in that no-one in our family is terminally ill, and apart from the death of a much loved family dog a year ago, I couldn’t understand what had triggered her anxiety. (We do live in the same neighbourhood as Alice Gross, but my daughter’s worries started long before her body was found.)
But our house is close to a graveyard, and my daughter said that this kicked off her anxiety: she can see a handful of graves from her bedroom window.
I felt it could also be simply that my daughter had reached an age in which she had started thinking about death. I remember clearly lying in bed at the same age and wondering what it would feel like to be dead.
Death is never an easy discussion to have with your child – especially as we can’t move house to escape the graveyard.
When talking to her about it, I tried to avoid telling her that adults are rather in the dark on this topic too, and that many of us prefer to push the thought of dying to the back of our minds.
So instead I took deep breaths, gave enormous hugs and offered plenty of time for listening.
And I explained that dying happens when your body stops working properly, usually because you’re very very very old.
But my six-year-old seemed so worried about the details – for example, about what it would like to be buried and how she wouldn’t be able to jump or stretch her legs when underground – that I did tell her about cremation, although I was deliberately very hazy about what it meant. Luckily, what I said seemed to help her – she was relieved that there was another option.
I also told her that some people believe in heaven and that this is where the part of you that helps you walk and talk moves to once you’re dead.
To help other parents facing similar questions, I spoke to clinical child psychologist Dr Carol Burniston, a facilitator for Child Bereavement UK.
She told me that dying is a common concern for children aged around five or six. “They are beginning to understand the concept of dying and this promotes the worry,” she says. “The child sees that when something dies, it’s gone forever.”
Here are her tips on how to talk to your child about dying:
Explain that a dead body isn’t you
Explain that when you die, you go somewhere else, leaving just your body behind. “Rather like a shell on the beach or a dead butterfly, it’s just the body that’s left,” she says. “Try saying, ‘The things that made the butterfly’s wings flap have gone away, so it doesn’t need to eat, it can’t fly or get up and it doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t need anything or feel anything and it’s not really the butterfly any more. All the important stuff has gone away.’”
It’s fine to talk about Heaven
Depending on your religion and beliefs, you could describe the part of the body that’s gone as being the soul, and that it’s now with Jesus.
If your child is healthy, tell them they probably won’t die until they’re old and wrinkly
“It’s quite appropriate at that age to say, ‘Goodness me, you’re not going to die for a very long time,’” says Dr Burniston. “You can say, ‘I’m sure you’re going to be a very old lady, and by that time, you’ll be so tired and ready for a rest.’”
And you have no plans to die yet either
Your child might also appear worried about you dying, but if you’re healthy and well, do tell them that you look after yourself and that you intend to be around to pester them when they’re old. “This isn’t about giving false hope – rather about recognising that there are patterns to life,” says Dr Burniston.
“Tell them that when they’re grown up and have children of their own and you’re old and wrinkly, you shall come for tea.”
Set up ‘Worry Time’
If your child is still very worried about dying, create a slot of five or 10 minutes once a day in which your child can talk about their anxieties and you will give your full attention.
If they bring up the subject outside of that time slot, gently remind them to save it for Worry Time. “It helps them learn to distract themselves and get on with other things,” says Dr Burniston.
Eventually they will lose interest in Worry Time as their anxiety fades.
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