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How Do You Explain Death to Young Children?

January 28, 2011

This past fall, our family lost our beloved Yia Yia (Greek for "grandmother"). It was tough. Although we knew Yia Yia was suffering from cancer, saying goodbye to a family member is always difficult.

The day before Yia Yia passed away, Bryan (my husband), our daughter Sophie and I gathered by Yia Yia's bedside to see her one last time. Even though Sophie is only 3-years-old, she sensed something was not right with this visit to her great-grandmother. Tears filled my eyes when Sophie looked over and said, "Yia Yia, are you sick?"

When Yia Yia died the next day, I started thinking about Sophie and what I would say next time we visited Bryan's family and she asked where Yia Yia had gone. I was at a loss. What do you say? I've skirted the issue thus far since Sophie doesn't understand what happened to Bambi's mom, or ask me why Wilbur is crying for Charlotte.

When my family's golden retriever, Max, died last year, our childcare provider encouraged us not to say Max got sick and went away, or Max is asleep and not coming back. Because to a toddler, they may remember that phrase next time mommy or daddy is sick and think we're not coming back. Good point. I hadn't thought of that.

She suggested thinking about what Bryan and I believe with respect to death and start talking in those terms. So talking about God or heaven. Which brings me back to the original question, How do you explain a concept like death to a 3-year-old when it's hard enough for an adult to grasp?

Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy tells her followers there are no right or wrong answers when talking to children about death. There are, however, better and worse approaches to the subject. She discusses those methods in her book, Where Do People Go When They Die?, Portnoy believes the discussions will vary depending on the child's age; but at any development stage, speaking with honesty, gentleness, openness and support are always best. And she encourages parents to only answer what the child asks, and not give them more information than they're ready to absorb.

Victoria Ryan, in her book When Your Grandparent Dies, astutely points out children don't have the maturity, reasoning, network of friends and language development that adults have, all of which help us cope with death. It's up to adults to help children find ways to cope. Ryan suggests giving children permission to talk, cry and laugh.

Many experts, like Ryan, suggest using a photograph or keepsake to help keep the person's spirit alive. This makes the finality seem less scary to children. It also helps the child understand that although the person is no longer here, it's okay to look at photos and talk about them; it's okay to remember.

Of course, there is the inevitable question of what to do when mom and dad aren't exactly sure what they believe in terms of death and afterlife. I was struggling with this a bit when Yia Yia died. How do I tell my daughter about the afterlife if it's not yet solidified with me? I want to be honest with Sophie. I don't want to scare her; yet don't want to sugar-coat life either.

I think, above all, it's important to be honest with children. Don't pretend to believe in something you don't, Portnoy suggests. But leave options open for children. For example, you can say, "some people believe this or that." Of course, I can hear Sophie saying, "What do you believe?" And to that, maybe I would just say, I'm not sure... but I know there are lots of ways to believe.

While our family has not yet had to deal with the death of an immediate family member, I've decided to begin talking about death with respect to memory and the importance of remembering those individuals that have passed on. I've decided our family will burn a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of Yia Yia's death. We'll bring out photos of her, to talk about her with Sophie. I'm hoping this ritual will help as Sophie gets older and we do need to confront the death of a grandparent, friend or family pet. Perhaps dealing with these situations while they're less scary for a young child will help make it less frightening down the line.

Here are a few helpful children's books and resources I've found while researching this subject:

  • Gentle Willow: A Story for Children About Dying. Written by Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D. Illustrated by Cary Pillo.
  • Where Do People Go When They Die? Written by Mindy Avra Portnoy. Illustrated by Shelly O. Haas.
  • When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child's Guide to Good Grief. Written by Victoria Ryan. Illustrated by R.W. Alley.
  • A Candle for Grandpa: A Guide to the Jewish Funeral for Children and Parents. Written by David Techner and Judith Hirt-Manheimer. Illustrated by Joel Iskowitz.
  • I Miss You: A First Look at Death. Written by Pat Thomas.

 

Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Leah R. Singer

Leah R. Singer is a writer, marketing and social media strategist. When she's not helping non-profits and businesses tell their stories, Leah blogs about family, motherhood, traditions, religion, cooking and other such topics. Leah enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter, two dogs and two cats in San Diego. You can read more about her at: www.leahsthoughts.com.

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