How to Explain Death to a Child

This weekend I attended the funeral of my last uncle. He was 85 and died in an accident in his home, so even though he was elderly, his death was a surprise. His neighbors loved him–especially their young son. They do not know how to explain to the child that his beloved neighbor will not longer visit. Each family deals with these things with these large issues in the framework of their faith and culture.

The American culture tends to hide death from children in a way that poorer countries where death among all ages is frequent, cannot. I offer this –the way we handled the death of my dear Dad, the first grandparent our two children lost.

We told them, as we do believe, that he has simply gone to heaven and that the body that remained was only the shell of their beloved grandfather. We stressed the continuing nature of love and its ability to transcend death, the passing into the afterlife.

Whatever your beliefs, I think it is good to allow the child to grieve and set up a small ritual to commemorate the passing, to allow the child to say good by in a special way. For us it was having the children sign their last valentine cards to my Father and to know that I put them in the coffin with him.(He died in the first week of Feb). If the funeral has passed, you can take a bouquet of flowers and lay them not necessarily at the grave, but at a place shared by the child and the person who has passed on–in the case of this little boy, my Uncle’s porch. Don’t try to tell the child everything you believe or cover the bases of all future possible questions. Answer what is asked, when it is asked, as truthfully as you can, according to your beliefs–with sincerity–and with love and consideration.

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