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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.”

graves

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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Comments (10)

  • Avatar

    Stephs Two Girls

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    I do remember that being the age where we got more questions, and back then I felt it was important to listen, but not to dwell on it. Age appropriate messages are the way to go, and I love these clear tips, thanks x

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      healthiermummy

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      You’re right about not dwelling on it, I think. It’s a balance between giving hugs but not giving it so much focus that the child thinks it’s another way of getting your attention. Or something.

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    Cass@frugalfamily

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    Some great tips – thanks for sharing x

  • Avatar

    Hannah Staveley

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    Ohhh my word gosh this is a hard subject , my kids are only 2 and 4 .

  • Avatar

    Rachel

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    My nephew who is 9 has just started asking about dying, its a hard subject to cover x

  • Avatar

    Nikki Fraser (@nikoteen87)

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    Wow that’s a very difficult subject to explain to a child. I think you handled it very well and the tips are great.

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    kara

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    Isaac is just starting to ask these sorts of questions. I guess its natural for them to be curious

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    Sylvia @ Happiness is homemade

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    This is really a hard subject for a young kids. My granddad passed away this year and while my brother was almost 6 that time we still had to talk to him about the whole situation, especially that we all had to travel and organize a funeral and he saw everything that I wish he didn’t have to see in such early age. I lost my grandma when I was 10 and it was so

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    Jen aka The Mad House

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    We went through similar when my boys were this age, plus my mum died suddenly. One of the things that really eased their minds was I asked how they felt before they were born and they both said they didn’t know. I said I think that being dead is the same.

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    Helen @ Witty Hoots

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    We are at a similar stage at home. We try to not use the words sleep or sleeping or compare it to sleeping. We are just explaining that you stop, you don’t feel pain or cold or anything and that some people believe the bit that makes you really you carries on in some shape or form. Hope your little one finds some peace of mind soon.xx

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