Is There a Right Way to Teach Kids About Death?

Is there a right way to teach kids about death? Death is a touchy subject for most parents, right up there with the birds and the bees. You wish you didn’t have to explain it to your kids. For one thing, it’s awkward. But there’s no getting around it—death is a part of the life cycle, and it’s something that confronts all of us. It’s just one of those things: explaining death is a parental duty a parent cannot escape.

A child’s first experience with death may be the sight of a baby bird fallen from the nest, or the death of a family pet. Sometimes however, a child’s earliest acquaintance with death comes when a family member dies. Now even on a regular day, when there’s no death on the horizon, it’s difficult to broach the subject. But death is an especially touchy subject to convey to children when the need to explain the import and finality comes during a time of painful personal loss, when the brain is befogged with heavy emotion.

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That’s why it is ideal for parents to teach kids about the lifecycle from the abundant examples in nature as opportunities present. Outings are great for generating clear examples of pregnancy, birth, aging, illness, death, and decay. By making the lesson an ongoing event, a child has a chance to leave the subject only to revisit it again and again in a natural way, so that the lesson is more fully absorbed, providing firm footing for later, more personal experiences of human loss.

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A child may see a pregnant pet or a mother dog with nursing puppies, or perhaps he will see a dead insect and wonder why it doesn’t fly away. The seasons and plants also serve well to explain the lifecycle to children. Plant a bulb with your child. Revisit the site and watch as first there is foliage and then a flower bud or buds. The flower blooms and then dies after which the foliage turns brown and shriveled. But the bulb with its potential for new life, remains underground, even when it cannot be seen.

The lifecycles of the plant and animal kingdoms can coincide, as in spring. A trip to a farm or a zoo can help to illustrate this. Point out to your child that all around is new green plant life at the same time as so many baby birds and animals are born.

Just as spring is a time of rebirth, autumn depicts a lifecycle about to end, with winter approaching as a time of hibernation. A homemade compost pile is a green way to teach children about the lifecycle too, relative to the breakdown of plant material. Composting illustrates to a child how even in decay, there is fertility and life, as vegetable matter becomes fertile soil that can nourish a garden.

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Even with all this preparation and if you’ll excuse the expression “groundwork,” when a child loses a dear relative, such as a grandparent, the situation is no longer philosophical or academic. As a parent, you will want to know how to help your child come to grips with the event. It’s crucial that he is made to feel comfortable with expressing his feelings relative to the sad event. Here are some tips on how you can guide your child through this confusing time that is so difficult for a child to comprehend:

  • Find out all you can about the manner of death so you can respond to your child’s questions in a manner that is both truthful and factual.
  • Keep your responses simple and clear cut.
  • Don’t play down the event as something minor—it’s not.
  • Be ready to accept your child’s response, whether he expresses a great deal of emotion or very little (both are perfectly normal).
  • Give your child lots of ways to express and play out his feelings, stress, and tension: drawing, talking, strenuous physical activity such as a workout or swimming, singing, writing, or whatever suits your child most.
  • Remain ready to listen to your child if he feels like talking about the death, either now or later—even much later.
  • Listen to your child with your full attention.
  • Never become fed up and decide it’s been “long enough” but give your child all the time he needs to feel, speak about, and come to terms with his experience of loss and grief.
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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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Comments

  1. Johnny Massengill says

    When my Father in law died in 1987, we had to explain to a 4 year old about his grandfather being “gone”. We answered his questions as they came up and didn’t try to over explain the situation.

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