09 Nov 2018

If someone dies, don’t hide it from your child -- tell them the truth

Sooner or later a child will ask -- “Where is grandma?” or “Why are we going to the cemetery?” What are parents supposed to say?

Wysokie Obcasy
Aleksandra Mijakoska-Siemion Wysokie Obcasy, Global
If someone dies, don’t hide it from your child -- tell them the truth - NewsMavens
Child cemetery, Pexels

The following fragments from Aleksandra Mijakoska-Siemion’s interview with Dr. Magdalena Śniegulska first appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in October 2018.

Death evokes strong emotions in adults, but for kids, especially those older than 3, it might seem like an ordinary incident. It all depends on how we handle it ourselves. Does thinking about death make us anxious or have we resigned ourselves to the fact that it is a natural part of life?

Aleksandra Mijakoska-Siemion: When is the right time to talk about death with our children? 

Dr. Magdalena Śniegulska: The truth is -- it all depends on the child and their curiosity. Some children surprise their parents with questions about death earlier than others. We shouldn’t avoid these conversations but try to actively address children’s needs. These talks will have a different weight and character, depending on the child’s age and stage of development.

AMS: So we should talk about it. Any advice on how to go about it?

When discussing death with our kids, we could refer to wilting flowers, a dying pet or our last visit to the cemetery. What’s crucial here is how we adults approach this matter ourselves. We need to bear in mind that children are good observers and they can sense any insincerity straight away.

The most important thing is to talk about death in a way that’s acceptable for us, get across our own line of reasoning -- sensibly, without any unnecessary emotion.

AMS: Approach it like any other subject, without demonizing it or treating it like a taboo?

Precisely. I’d like to encourage parents to try and use such expressions as “death” and “dying” in the conversation. For us, these words have a heavy emotional charge because (most likely) we’ve already experienced some kind of loss -- whether it was a death of a family member or someone from our friend circle. For a child “death” is like any other word.

AMS: Sometimes parents try to replace it with more subtle expressions.

And sometimes that approach does even more damage. We need to remember that words have power and at some point we will have to face the consequences of our vocabulary choice. If we describe a dead person as “asleep”, “passed” or “gone”, we merge different concepts. A child’s sense of time starts developing around the age of 5. Before this happens, such expressions as “for a minute” or “forever” sound pretty much the same. A child can happily announce that they love someone from kindergarten until the end of time -- which in fact means from Monday to Tuesday.

AMS: Should we bring up the subject of death ourselves?

We’re all different and so are children. I’d advise trying to take a good look at ourselves and take note of your own reactions. Very often children feel like asking a question but don’t have the courage to do so. They might sense that parents are not keen on certain subjects and quickly learn to avoid these and other subjects that make adults sad or angry.

AMS: Will we traumatize our child if we tell them that their grandmother died?

These “traumatic experiences” are nothing else but our visions of a child’s reaction.

More often than not children treat a death in the family as a natural occurrence.

However, we should remember that our child’s response to death also depends on the way we confront it ourselves. 

AMS: So how should we explain what death really is?

Directly and clearly. Say that a person died because their heart stopped beating, their brain stopped working and their blood stopped flowing -- they stopped breathing and now they’re dead. We should choose simple words that will be understandable for the child. Kids at certain age, usually between 5 and 8, are fascinated by physiological processes.

 AMS: So we should approach it from a physiological perspective?

Definitely. Very often children attending funerals pay more attention to what happens to the body after death than to everyone’s  grief and sorrow. It would be great if someone could provide them with an explanation, and did so calmly and explicitly.

 AMS: What about our beliefs and religion?

We can use the subject of death to acquaint our child with our convictions. Some of us accept the fact that at one point our life is over and what we leave here are our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. If we’re religious, we could use a conversation about death to pass our spiritual vision of afterlife on to our children; tell them about traditions associated with funerals, describe the comfort and solace we find in mourning rituals.

Death is not only a part of life, but an important part of our culture and education.

AMS: When should we take our child to the cemetery for the first time?

Whenever we and our child feel ready. The truth is, we shouldn’t be afraid of going to graveyards. Some families even visit graves of late relatives and reminisce about the past. It’s a great opportunity to build a sense of community and identity.

AMS: To sum up, subject of death seems more scary to parents than to their children.

As long as it doesn’t involve the actual loss of someone close, like a parent. Younger children treat death as a natural incident or, as I’ve mentioned before, as a fascinating physiological process. Very often it’s parents who find this subject difficult. They avoid it when kids are young and find it even harder to discuss once they’re older. But the lack of discussion generates unnecessary tension and anxiety, and that’s why we should never evade it. After all, it’s natural and inevitable. Letting our child participate in misfortune situations and allowing them to see us grieve over somebody’s death gives them a chance to experience and get accustomed to new, unpleasant feelings. It’s a crucial element of child’s emotional development which also helps to build healthy relations within the family.


Dr Magdalena Śniegulska -- psychologist, psychotherapist and lecturer at University of Social Science and Humanities and at PAFF and UW School of Education.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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