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The way you respond when talking to young children about death is determined by your own personal and spiritual views on this topic. The following suggestions may help you explain to a child some of the practical aspects of what happens when death occurs.
When talking to young children about death, it is a good idea to start by finding out what they already believe. It is quite surprising what misconceptions they may have already developed. During a talk like this, it is good to be close to your child to make them feel secure and less afraid. The conversation may be difficult and you may not have all the answers, but never be afraid to say you do not know. This is usually better than making up some fantasy that may later confuse and upset the child.>
It is alright to let children know that you feel sad and even to see you cry. Explain why you are sad and reassure them it is okay for them to feel sad and cry too if they want to. Tell the truth …children are more resilient than adults think. Do not create stories to protect them, they may resent you later for not being truthful. However, keep your answers simple and at a level they can understand.
Although it is difficult for young children to understand the finality of death, it is best to confront the issue honestly. Never tell them the person went away on a trip or just went to sleep, this may scare the child next time they go away or go to bed. Even though you tell the children the person will not return, they may frequently ask you when they’ll be back. This is natural and should be answered the same, truthfully, each time.
Children may think something they said or did made the person die. Reassure them this is not true. Explain that they may even feel angry at the deceased because they died. Let them know that this is normal and even adults feel that way sometimes. They may be afraid that you will die or that anyone that gets sick and goes into hospital will die. Reassure them that illness and death do not go hand in hand, and that you plan to stay alive for a long time.
Encourage children to attend the funeral service and viewing, but only if they want to, never force them. At the viewing encourage them to place something special in the coffin, perhaps a drawing, a letter, a flower or a special toy. They are members of the family, and have a right to take part in such events. Attending may also clear up the fantasies and fears they have. If possible, even let them take an active part in the service. This might make them feel important and a part of this special day. Later a visit to the cemetery may initiate discussion of how and what they are feeling.