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Teaching kids about death

Teaching children how to relate to death is like trying to pick up a greased glass bead with chopsticks. You can try a hundred different approaches and still want to try a different way. This is perhaps why pets were invented. Their shorter life spans and loving nature teach children that saying painful goodbyes is sometimes a part of life. But no matter how many dogs, cats, and goldfish you bury in the backyard, nothing can prepare a child for the loss of a family member - most likely a grandparent. The child will have questions, and you have a choice to make over how to answer them.  

Aside from anything, and depending where you live in the world, you could have questions over what happens next to which you don’t even know the answer yourself yet. For example, how long does it take to organize a funeral service in Ottawa? Or how long does an executor of a will have to settle an estate in nj? Or what is the average cost of a venue for a wake in Chicago? Because don’t forget, you’ll be dealing with a lot of new emotions and experiences yourself, all the while trying to keep yourself together, so perhaps having a plan regarding how to communicate with the children will help.

Don’t accidentally confuse things

Children don’t understand metaphors. They deal in very literal information and imagery. This can be problematic for parents or guardians who prefer to keep their child’s childhood going for as long as possible, with stories of the tooth fairy and Santa playing a part in their child’s understanding of the world well up until the age of 9 or 10 years. 

The issue here is that the parent or guardian may try to soften the news of a death in the family by saying things like “grandpa has gone to sleep” or “grandma is with her mummy and daddy now”, both of which suggest that the grandparent is in fact still alive and with a bit of gentle coaxing could very easily be available for lunch this weekend. 

You must tell the truth. Try something like “Grandma was very sick. She died last night and we’re all going to miss her very much. It’s OK to cry.” This removes any ambiguity, but will no doubt lead to questions…

Encourage your child to question anything they don’t understand 

Fear of the unknown is worse than the fear of what you understand. If the child has questions, about cremations or burials, for example, answer them as honestly as possible. If they have certain questions about the afterlife, answer them by asking “what do you believe?”. Your child may surprise you with how emotionally well they are able to handle the situation.

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