When questions about death come up, either because someone close to your child has died or she’s grappling with the implications of death, you may be stumped about how best to respond.
There are no “perfect” answers — the most important thing is to answer your child’s queries as patiently and gently as possible and to understand that her concerns and reactions will be different from yours. Expect to have to repeat your answers over and over again, and to provide details if your child asks for them.
“More so than at other ages, grade-schoolers want answers that are very concrete,” says Michael Towne, a child-life specialist who works with grieving families at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center.
Here are some of kids’ most common questions about death, plus guidance for answering them in a way that will satisfy grade-schoolers’ curiosity:
“What happens when you die?” “Our bodies stop working. The heart won’t beat, the muscles don’t work, and the brain can’t think.
“Most people die because they’re old and their bodies wear out, but some people die from serious diseases or accidents. Nobody knows for sure where people go after they die, but we know they’re not in pain anymore, and that’s good.”
“What’s a funeral?” “A funeral is a ceremony to help all of us remember the person who died, and an opportunity to show our love for him. The person’s body is there — sometimes you can see it, and sometimes it’s in a closed coffin. The people who come to the funeral are usually sad, even crying.”
“What’s cremation?” Be sure your child has a clear understanding of what “dead” means — that the body can feel no heat or pain — before trying to explain this process. You can use dead leaves as an example, explaining how they break down into little pieces and eventually back into dirt, and tell her that people’s bodies break down after they die, too.
You can say: “Sometimes people choose to make this process happen faster. They take a dead body, which doesn’t feel anything anymore, and make it really hot so that it breaks down quickly and can become part of the earth faster.”
“What’s a miscarriage?” “Some babies are too weak to grow properly, so they die in their mother’s body and the pregnancy ends before the baby can be born. Often the mom can’t even feel it when it happens, though if the baby’s bigger, she can tell when the baby stops kicking inside her.
“It’s rare for a baby to die after it’s born unless there’s something really wrong with its heart or lungs or blood.”
“When will I die?” “We don’t know exactly when anyone will die, but most of us live a long, long time. I expect you’ll live to be very old.”
“When will you die?” Children often ask questions that seem shocking or callous to adults. What your grade-schooler really means is, “Will I still be taken care of?”
Even if she doesn’t ask outright, it’s wise to anticipate worries about how stable her life will be: “I want you to know that I plan to be here until I’m very, very old and you’re all grown up.”
“Was it my fault?” Chances are, your grade-schooler won’t actually ask this out loud, but feelings of guilt are common and worth anticipating, so give her reassurance even if she never vocalizes such thoughts.
You can say: “I want you to know that your little brother died because he had leukemia, a serious illness. You were a very good sister, and none of us did anything to make his death happen.”
“Can’t we just pretend Dad’s on a trip?” For children who’ve lost a very close relative, it’s common to try to block out their pain by pretending nothing’s happened.
Gently remind her of the truth and provide her with factual information: “I know it would feel better to think that. But remember, Dad’s heart attack was very quick and severe, and there was no way he could recover from it.”
“I remember Dad used to snuggle with me when I was a baby.” If your child shares memories that she clearly can’t really have, don’t correct her. This just means the lost loved one is real to her, and stories like this bring her a tremendous amount of comfort.