Chapter 4: Explaining dying and death

Explaining death


The expert says
Andrea Warnick, children's grief therapist, encourages adults to explain the physical death of a body.(3:22)Video transcript
I've been there
Jean and Omo talk about preparing their son for his friend's death. (3:22)Video transcript

We totally confused our kids by trying to explain the afterlife without first explaining what happens to the body when someone dies.

We worried about how much to tell the kids. We didn't want to scare them with too much information.  

Where did he go? 

It’s important to use the words dying and deathPassed away or passed on can be confusing and too abstract for young children to understand. If we say that we lost grandpa or mom is gone, children often wonder:

Gone where?

Why aren’t we looking for him?

Did I do something to make her leave?

When is she coming back?  

 

Explaining to young children

Start by explaining what happens to the physical body.  

When a body dies, it stops working and can never work again. 

The body doesn’t think or feel anymore so it doesn’t get cold or hungry and it can’t feel pain. 

The body can never come back to life. 

It’s best to explain that “the body” includes the person’s head. Young children often think that “body” means from the neck down – and so they may mistakenly imagine the body of the person who has died with no head.    

To show them the difference between being alive and dead, ask them to jump up and down, breathe in and out, and feel their own heart beating. 

When a person dies, they can’t jump around, they stop breathing and their heart can’t beat or work anymore. 


Discussing cause of death

If your child asked what caused the death, give an honest and simple explanation. 

Your sister was hit by a car. Her body was so injured that she died. 

Your uncle had a heart attack. This caused his heart to stop working and he died. 

Unless they ask, you don’t need to describe what happened in detail. If they do ask, let their questions guide which information to give, and answer them honestly.