It’s been a tough week…
A week ago yesterday my step-father, AKA Grandad to my children, passed away from some complications from pneumonia. It left my husband and I feeling saddened for the hole left in our lives along with the fact that we had to explain death to our 2.5 and 5 year old. We had to quickly come up with a game plan on how we were going to organize our thoughts and explain in “little child” terms what death meant and how we believe in a God that brings eternal life in Heaven to those who choose to follow Him.
My husband had the privilege of sharing with them that their loving grandad was now in a much better place and free from any Earthly pain. As I entered the house after his talk with the girls, I could tell it was a difficult conversation and that he needed a moment to himself. I acknowledged his need for a break and took over with the girls answering any questions they had. What I noticed is they were very receptive to what had happened and asked great questions for such little girls. BUT…I got completely overwhelmed and at a loss for words at some of their questions. I realized there are resources out there that help parents have these discussions with kids. If you know me, you know that I like to be prepared and ready for the unknown…so I started doing some research. I found out many things about how to speak to children about death and heaven. Here are some of my key takeaways that I found more than useful.
Developmental Stages of Understanding – A General Guide
- Preschool children mostly see death as temporary, reversible and impersonal. In stories they read or watch characters will often suddenly rise up alive again after being totally destroyed. It’s not surprising they don’t understand, yet it is appropriate for their age level to think this way.
- Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to see that all living things eventually die and that death is final. They tend to not relate it to themselves and consider the idea that they can escape it. They may associate images with death, such as a skeleton. Some children have nightmares about them.
- From nine through to adolescence, children to begin to understand fully that death is irreversible and that they too will die some day.
It is important to remember however that all children develop at different rates and that children experience life uniquely. They have their own personal ways of handling and expressing emotions.
It is not uncommon for a three year old to ask questions about death, for a child to be openly unconcerned about the death of a grandparent yet devastated over the death of a pet. Some children show their understanding of death through playing with their toys.
It is important to explain death in simple terms for young children. For example, when someone dies they don’t breathe, or eat, or feel hungry or cold and you won’t be able to see them again.
No matter how children cope with death or express their feelings, they need sensitive and nonjudgmental responses from adults. Careful listening and observing are important ways to learn how to respond appropriately to a child’s needs.