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Copyright 2005

Talking to children about death
Robyn O’Connell

Why is it that we find it so hard to talk to our children about certain things?  Take sex for example – you know you have to do it, and for some people it is not a problem at all, for others we struggle to find the most suitable way and opportunity to talk to them about it.  Death is the same; it’s one of those subjects that we really don’t want to talk about ourselves, so how do we talk to our children about it?  Unfortunately some times we don’t talk about death until it happens to someone close to us, then the pain we are feeling makes it even more difficult to answer the myriad of questions that children have about it.

Death is a part of life, but in this day and age where the elderly are in nursing homes and hospices, children are not exposed to it the same way as say the Europeans are, where grandparents still live with the family.  Europeans, in fact, have it all over us Aussies when it comes to grieving.  Men openly cry, kiss and hug each other, and women wear black so that even strangers approaching them know that someone special in their lives has died.  Children see the person once they have died and quite often the body is left in the house until the funeral occurs.

In Australia we sanitize death to a point.  We most often don’t have the person living at home when they die, they are usually in clean sterile places like hospitals.  Then the body is taken to a funeral director’s where it is looked after until the funeral.  If we arrange it, we have a viewing but that is at the funeral home and at a time that is pre-arranged!  So is it any wonder that children are so protected from death when we in fact try to protect ourselves?  

Hopefully one day parents will be as comfortable talking about the issues of death with their children as they are about the natural process of beginning school.  I believe the most important element is to talk about it BEFORE it happens.  Then the child knows what to expect and only needs to deal with the emotions involved.

I did this with my son by way of a spider.  I killed the spider (heartless I know) and explained to him that the ‘spirit’ part of the spider had now left his body to go to heaven (a special place that you cannot come back from) and that all that remained was his ‘body’.  We took the ‘body’ and placed it in a matchbox and buried it in the garden.  Explaining that this is what we do to person except that there is more time that elapses between the death and the burial to enable people to travel to their families.  

Depending on your belief, you can tell them what you understand will happen after someone dies.  A word of caution, using phrases like ‘Grandpa has gone to heaven’ to children is no different than Grandpa has gone to the shops – they will expect that they will come back.  ‘Going to sleep’ is another that can be frightening for a child - will they die if they go to sleep?  Likewise beware of saying, ‘Grandpa was sick and went to hospital and died’, as the child stores that information until a few years down the track when they become ill and have to go to hospital. Then, those words will come back to them!

  The best thing that you can do for your child is to talk about death using the words ‘dead’, ‘die’ and ‘dying’.  They are just words that describe something.  I know it can be frightening for us, but there really is nothing to be frightened of as far as death goes, it is the pain that we feel in having someone gone from our lives that causes us to shy away from it.   

After the death my daughter, the most important thing that was said to me was that someone only dies if they die in your heart, the relationship that you had with her – you still have – that will never die.  It is important to emphasize that to your child, that Grandpa will always be his grandpa, nothing will ever change that.  

I know, with the best intentions, you want to protect your children, as parents that is as natural as the sun rising each day. But just as the sun rises, one day someone we know will die. It is better if children know the ‘factual’ stuff about what will happen so that all of you can deal with the many emotions you will be facing.    


Robyn O’Connell is a funeral celebrant and owner of Silver Celebrants . Robyn has experience as a grief educator and running bereavement workshops. In May 2004, Robyn published a book explaining death to children., called What Happens when you die?





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