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How should I explain death to a child under 5-6 years old if a close family member or friend dies?

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3 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Great question.

I can't answer what you should tell your child, as that is largely dependent on your beliefs, but can try and give you some pointers on how you could talk to your child.

Whatever it is you belief, we found it helped us to talk to our son (5 at the time) in as simple and direct terms possible, and to not be overly emotional ourselves. Of course you want to be warm, empathic and comforting, and can share (and show) that you're sad, but we tried to stay as level as possible.

We also tried to emphasize that it is simply a part of life: everything is born (or made), has a certain lifespan, and then dies (or breaks). We drew parallels to animals, plants, toys, cars etc.

Then we tried to give some thought to the good times we shared, and that we should be thankful for the time we had with the person, and try to hold on to those good memories in our sadness.

Finally, we acknowledged that it was not fair (the death was somewhat premature) and that it was ok to be angry about it - but that that wouldn't change the fact that the person was gone and that we shouldn't let that taint our memories of the person.

Add to this whatever beliefs you hold about life and death that you wish to share (side note: my wife and I belief different things, so we explained this to our son and explained both our beliefs - he decided he liked my wife's better and is sticking with that for now).

The above is what we thought of as age appropriate for our son, and I would simplify for younger children.

Hope that helps!

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Good answer. Thanks for staying belief-system neutral. I'm not sure how/if to talk about "fairness" as you mentioned, but overall I like the response. –  Javid Jamae Apr 13 '11 at 4:49
    
@javid Thank you. Re Fairness, I hear you and think it's probably situation dependent. We wouldn't have brought it up if my son hadn't been angry, saying it wasn't fair the person died at a younger age than most. –  Korneel Bouman Apr 14 '11 at 14:36
    
Thanks for sharing! Do you have some examples of what you say "simple and direct terms possible, and to not be overly emotional ourselves"? I'm having a hard time imagining those. –  Lode Dec 9 '11 at 12:40
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@lode We didn't use euphemisms like "passed on" or "went away", we simply said that grandma had died and that that meant she wasn't around any longer. That we were sad about that, but that we were happy for the time we spent with her and that it is natural for people to die (although sometimes some people die earlier than we would like). Hope that helps? –  Korneel Bouman Dec 19 '11 at 13:33
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To add to @Korneel's answer:

After starting to understand death's permanence, our daughter became very worried about my wife and I dying.

The most important things we've stressed to her about it is that:

  • Nobody gets to choose when they die
  • Despite that, we don't plan on dying anytime soon
  • Even if we did, that they would still be cared for and loved by people close to them, and that there would be people who would continue to look out for them even if we were gone.
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great add. I completely forgot about our son going through the same; we used similar points to address his fears. –  Korneel Bouman Apr 11 '11 at 21:11
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These conversations can be tough! Here are a few books on the subject:

  • When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Dino Life Guides for Families) by Laurie Krasny Brown
  • What Happens When Someone Dies?: A Child's Guide to Death and Funerals (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy
  • Water Bugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney
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