Honesty in death: telling children the truth

I will start with a true story. A friend of mine worked as a nanny for a five-year-old girl. Sadly, one day, the beloved family dog Belle had to be put down. Thinking they would be helping their daughter cope with the loss, the girl’s parents attempted to soften the blow by telling her a different version of events. Instead of telling their daughter her dog had died, they told her that Belle had gone to live on a wonderful farm where she could play happily with all the other animals.

The child accepted this truth and didn’t say much more about it. Until, one day, she asked my friend, "When will we be going to visit Belle on the farm?" Before she could reply she added, "I know that Belle is happy on the new farm but why did she not want to play with me anymore?"

This is an example of why honesty is always the best policy when talking to children about death.

As hard as it may feel, it is essential that we are honest with our children when a loved one dies.

Although in many cultures the process of mourning is embraced by a whole community, where I am from in Kent, the attitudes towards death are more conservative and in some cases, shrouded with fear and mystery.

The language of death

The reluctance in many to speak directly about death has brought about a range of metaphors that have replaced the words: dead, death and dying. However, despite people’s best intentions, the use of unclear language can leave children confused and frightened. Here are some of the most used phrases that I hear when working with families:

Gone to sleep

This phrase can be particularly confusing for young children and can lead to major sleep disruption if the child feels that they too might die if they fall asleep.

Lost

The problem with saying that you have ‘lost’ a loved one is that a child doesn’t always understand the finality of death. There is always the chance that a personal belonging that has been lost will be found.

Gone somewhere else

Some children are told that loved ones have ‘become a star’ or have ‘gone to heaven’. This can lead to similar misunderstandings. I have worked with young children who have believed that they might see a family member if they go on a plane on holiday, or believe that a person can be looking down from the sky at them.

Although this can sometimes be a comforting thought, it can also be quite uncomfortable for a child that has got in trouble at school one day and who may then worry that they have disappointed their dead relative.

Chosen by God

This can be difficult to understand. Rather than comforting a child, it can make them angry or fearful that they too could be ‘taken away’ at any given moment.

Father comforting daughter

Explaining death

Some helpful tips on how you can explain the death of a loved one to your child.

Clean language 

It may be difficult to use the words: death, dead and dying but clean language like this is the language that bereavement counsellors and charities like Holding On Letting Go will use when supporting young children, and are the best words for families to use also. You will find that children are not uncomfortable with the words like adults can be.

If you are looking for a simple way to explain death to a child you could tell them something like this:

“Your grandma has died and that has made us all very sad. She died because her body stopped working properly and the doctors weren’t able to fix it, even though they tried very hard. Now that Nanny is dead, her heart has stopped beating. Nanny can’t breathe, eat or feel anything anymore because her body has completely stopped working and won’t be able to work again.”

If your child asks you questions after you have told them this, answer only what they wish to know, using language they can understand. As children get older they may ask new questions, requiring more detail.

Common questions

Here are a few of the most common questions I have been asked when working with children:

Can I catch cancer?

Although terminal illnesses can be difficult to understand, it is important that children are given the opportunity to process this information. It is common for children to think that they, or another loved one, might die too, so it is ok to reassure your child that most people die when they are old and it is much less likely that they or younger family members will also die. Never give them promises you can’t keep, however.

A simple explanation like this might help:

“Nanny died because something went wrong inside her body that medicines couldn’t make better. It isn’t something that you can catch just because you hugged her.”

Woman with head on man's shoulder

Does it hurt when people get cremated?

Children don’t understand what happens at a cremation or a funeral unless it is explained to them. Allowing your child to be part of the funeral process helps your child better process the death. Attendance should be encouraged but never forced.

In his book Grief In Children: A handbook for adults, Atle Dyregrov explains the importance of explaining exactly what the funeral will be like, in advance, so children know what to expect. Dyregrov also explains the importance of talking through the burial or cremation process.

“It can be explained to children that when something is dead it will decay and that cremation will turn a body that no longer feels anything to ashes.”

Conversations like these can be difficult, especially if you are also grieving. However, when it comes down to it, the best advice is to be as honest as possible. 

Bereavement counselling

If you need any support in helping your child come to terms with the death of a loved one, Holding On Letting Go is a charity in Kent that run bereavement weekends for children and their families.

If you are looking for more continued support for yourself or your child, counselling sessions provide the space to process your grief and learn to build a life after loss. This doesn’t mean you will stop grieving for your loved one, but I can help you get to a place where your grief will no longer consume you.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10

Written by Catherine Beach

Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10

Catherine is a person centred counsellor, teacher and occasional poet from Kent. She is on a mission to rid the world of shoulds and musts so she can work with her clients to discover their passions, wants and needs. She firmly believes that we are all good enough but live in a world that often lies to us.

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