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Explaining To Children

Where do I start?

When talking to a child about death, it is first best to determine your own personal and spiritual views on the topic. Encourage an open and frank discussion. Hold your child as much as possible. Do not be afraid to admit that you are not sure of something. This is better than making something up that will later confuse or upset them. Do not be afraid to let your child see you cry. Explain why you are sad and reassure them that it is okay for them to feel sad and cry if they want to.

Never tell your child that the deceased "has gone to sleep" or "is on a long trip."  This could make them afraid to go to sleep or afraid to to take a long trip.  Explain that death is final and at this point you may incorporate your own spiritual and religious views on the subject.  Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve.  We should not put a time limit on grieving no two children are alike.

Encourage your child to attend the funeral and make visits to the cemetery, but never force them to go. They are members of the family and they too have a right to take a part in the service. By attending the funeral, it may often clear up any misconceptions they might have.  If possible, let them take an active part in the service. For example, encourage them to write a letter to the deceased and let them put it in the casket, or maybe serve as an active or honorary pallbearer. This makes them feel important and closer to the person who has died.

How can I explain death to children?

Experiencing the death of a family member can be very different for younger members of the family. Young children may recover from the death of a loved one very quickly. Most children under three years of age have no concept of death and they may not fully understand the finality of death until approximately age nine. Therefore, it is important to handle the situation carefully. Talk with the child and try to help them understand that although the deceased will no longer be with you, that death is a natural part of everyday life. Let the child ask questions, and guide them through any grieving process, reassuring them and answering their questions. A funeral home can advise you on helping your child cope with the death of a loved one. Resources such as books and brochures are available that can help you and the child through what can be a difficult and confusing time.

How do I explain death to a child?

A child's understanding of death will vary based upon two main factors: their level of development and their prior experience with death. The very young child (2-4 years) has a limited concept of what death is. However, this does not mean they are not affected in a very real way by the death of someone loved. A child of this age will certainly be aware that the person is missing. He or she may ask about the person over and over again. It is best to use the word "dead" when answering. For example: "Grandma is dead, honey. She can never come back." Even though the child may not yet fully understand what "dead" means, he or she will begin to differentiate it from such things as "bye-bye," "sleeping," or "gone." These are words that, when used in place of the word dead, can confuse the child. Instead, one should use simple, direct language when explaining: "Dead means the body stops working -- Grandma can't talk, walk, feel, or breathe anymore. The part of grandma that we loved and that made her special is gone; all that is left is her body."

By ages 5 or 6 to age 9, children begin to have a more mature understanding of death, however that understanding may not be consistent in all instances. The child may on one hand seem to grasp that physical functions cease at death, but then ask, "How will grandma be able to breathe when she is buried in the ground?" The child will have many, many questions, all of which should be answered as honestly as possible. They may ask the same questions over and over again; having them answered over and over again will only help them to understand more and more. The child may have the fear that someone else close to them is going to die next. Children of this age should be reassured that there will always be someone to take care of them.

By age 9 or 10, most children have a pretty mature understanding of death. Again it is important to answer their questions as honestly as possible, and not to avoid talking about the death. Sometimes adults don't want to talk about the death in order to insulate the child from "unnecessary" pain and sadness, or may possibly believe that the child "just wouldn't understand anyway." The reality is, whether it's talked about or not, the child will grieve, no matter what! Grief is a normal and natural response to loss no matter what our age. As children's grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt states so beautifully, "If a child can love, a child can grieve."

When someone we love dies, it is important to remember that a child's reactions may not be obvious or immediate. If he or she goes outside to play right away after learning about the death, that's okay! It doesn't necessarily mean the child doesn't care or doesn't comprehend -- the child is just being a child. If possible, try to stick to the child's normal routine -- especially if the person who died was close to the child (a parent or sibling, for example). Continuity provides the child with a sense of security and stability during a time full of uncertainty. And most importantly, having an understanding, supportive adult who is available to answer questions and provide comfort and reassurance, will only help the child to successfully move forward in his or her grieving process.

Should children attend funerals?

It is very important that children not be left out of the family grieving process. This could include involvement in the arrangements, viewing and/or funeral service of the person who has died. Although a child may not completely understand the ceremony surrounding the death, being involved helps the child to establish a sense of comfort and the understanding that life goes on even though someone loved has died. Not allowing a child to participate isolates the child from the rest of the family, perhaps even hindering his or her grieving process. On the same token, a child should never be forced to participate. Explain to them what will happen at the visitation and funeral and allow them to make their own decision about whether or not to attend.

If the deceased will be viewed at the visitation and/or funeral, let the child know this ahead of time. Explain what the casket and the person will look like. If cremation has or will be taking place, explain what cremation means and what will happen to the cremated remains. Reinforce to the child that because the person is dead, they cannot feel anything during the cremation process. It is also a good idea to let the child know that at the visitation/funeral there will be people showing many emotions; some people may cry and others may not show their feelings at all. It is important to remember that children need to see the adults in their lives expressing their grief. This gives the child "permission" to grieve as well.

Many parents are concerned about the possibility of their child acting up or disturbing others during the funeral service. Explain that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to behave at funerals and talk about it with the child. If this is still a concern, perhaps taking the child to the funeral home for the family visitation, usually a less formal time, is more appropriate. This gives them more of an opportunity to ask questions and have them answered as well. It is always a good idea to designate a trusted friend or family member to be "in charge" of the children while the family is at the funeral home. This person can then not only keep an eye on the children's whereabouts, but also be available to answer questions. This relieves the parents of such responsibility at a time when they may need to focus on their own grief reactions.

Give the child the option to do something special such as draw a picture or write a letter to the person who has died to be placed in the casket before, during, or after the funeral service. Or perhaps the child would like to select a favorite photograph of themselves to have on display or to place in the casket.

Children's grief expert, Dr. Alan Wolfelt says: "The funeral, a ritual that has been with us since the beginning of time, is here to help us embrace the life that was lived and support each other as we go forward. As caring adults, we will service our children well to introduce them to the value of coming together when someone we love dies."

How do I explain cremation to a child?

The concept of cremation may be scary for some children. They may have heard adults use words such as "oven" and "burn", or may picture in their minds that cremation is like setting the person's body on fire. It is important to use simple, concrete language, and avoid using words that may frighten children when talking about cremation.

First, it is important to emphasize that when someone dies, what's left is just their body -- the part of the person that made them special is no longer there. They cannot see, hear, think, talk, breathe, or FEEL anything anymore. After someone dies, the family calls the funeral home to help them care for the body of the deceased. There are three ways to care for the body after a person dies: burial, cremation, or donation to a medical school for learning or research. Whether the body is buried or cremated, the end result is the same: the body reduces to "ashes" or cremated remains.

Here is a suggestion of how to explain the cremation process to a child:

The person's body is placed into a special box and then into a room (or chamber), called a crematory, where it gets very, very hot. The heat helps to change the person's body into ashes (or cremated remains) very quickly. It usually takes about 3 hours. [When a person's body is buried, it takes many, many years for the body to change to ashes.] After the cremation is finished, all that is left are pieces of the bones. There are tiny pieces as well as large pieces. The bone pieces are then placed into a special machine called a processor, which breaks up the bones until they are like powder. The powder is gray in color. The cremated remains are then placed into a container or urn that the family has chosen to use. The cremated remains of an adult weigh about 6 to 8 pounds. The cremated remains of a baby weigh just a few ounces. Sometimes the family keeps the cremated remains at their house in a pretty container, or they might bury them in a cemetery. Sometimes the cremated remains are sprinkled or scattered in an outdoor place that is special to the family or to the person who died.

Why do people die?

Dying is a natural part of life. All living things ­ plants, animals, even people-are special parts of God's natural world. Nature almost always gives us long, healthy lives. Like all other living things, though, people grow old and reach the end of life. This is called death, or dying.

Does death hurt?

Doctors tell us that death is not usually painful. Especially with old people, dying is almost always quiet. When someone dies in an accident, they often feel no pain at all because death comes so quickly. Even when someone is sick or hurt for a long time before death, special medicines and treatment take away much of the pain.

When someone dies, are they being punished?

Death is never a punishment. It is almost always natural. Time wears out important parts of our bodies. After many, many years these parts cannot work anymore. People die when these parts ­ the heart, for example ­stop working.

Why can't doctors and hospitals stop someone from dying?

Many times they do. Yet sometimes, even though they have tried their best, someone dies. Doctors help people live long, healthy lives. Because of what doctors have learned, people live much longer now than they did when your grandparents were children. Hospitals help people too. Doctors and nurses work in hospitals to make sick and injured people better. People go to hospitals to become healthy, not to die.

Where do dead people go?

Most people believe that when someone dies, part of that person lives on and goes to Heaven. This part is not like a heart or brain or any other part of us that doctors have to take care of. It is the part that lets us feel love and happiness. It never gets sick. It never wears out. This part is called the spirit. People all over the world have always believed that our spirits live on. There is no reason to think that this is not true.

Why did someone I love have to die? Why couldn't it have been someone else?

Sometimes death doesn't seem fair. Of all the people in the whole world, why did this one special person have to die? Almost everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, is loved by others. Almost everyone will be missed by others when they die. Right now someone just like you somewhere else in the world is asking the same question: Why did someone I love have to die? Remember, we all will someday lose someone we love.

Why are people buried when they die?

After a person dies, we place them in a cemetery. This is a gentle way to say goodbye to someone we love.

A cemetery gives us a quiet, pretty place to come and think about that person. A visit to a cemetery can bring back pleasant memories.