Talking and Thinking About Death

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Talking and Thinking About Death


Life happens, which means inevitably death happens. Children can be shielded from the experience of death, and what that means, for a period of time but as they grow and explore the social world, they will come into contact with conversations, games or even visuals of death. For most of us parents that is a scary thing to think about as we want to protect our children from things that are scary and hard to explain. However, contrary to our own feelings, it is actually more beneficial for our children when we face our own trepidations around this topic as the more we shun the topic and hide it from them, the scarier it becomes.

When Your Child Experiences Death First Hand

Some children will be faced with experiencing death first hand early in their lives. They may have lost a pet, family member or friend. Depending on the age of your child they will have varying levels of understanding of what is happening. Very young children will not understand and will be “blissfully ignorant” to the goings on and outcomes of death. Children preschool aged and over are often far more aware of the finality of death. This can cause children to be more curious, anxious and questioning of the process.

My own families experience with death was first hand when my Mother-in-law passed away suddenly late last year. My daughter who was just shy of two at the time was in the “blissfully ignorant” camp and had no idea what was happening in her world. My son however was four and was very aware. Upon hearing that she had died, I was visibly upset and my son asked me why I was crying. I did not shy away from the topic as much as I wanted to shield him from it, I was brave and spoke to him truthfully. I responded to him, “Ma Ma died honey. That is why I’m sad” he looked at me and started to cry himself and said, “but who will be my Ma Ma now?” We both held each other and cried about the sudden and sad loss. Over the next few weeks my husband and I took a conscious effort to not shield our pain from our children but also not become overwhelmed by our feelings in front of them. My son over time began to come up with his own unique explanations for his understanding of the events. In a way this was his own process of grieving and making sense of this new and scary experience. “I can build a rocket ship to go and get her from the clouds and bring her back”, “it’s okay Mum, I’m not sad, she wasn’t my Mum. I would be sad if you died. Will you be sad if I die?” “I don’t want you to die Mummy. I will make a magic potion that we can drink and then we won’t die!”
Different families will have different approaches to death and how they speak with their children about it. This will vary from culture to culture as well as different cultures ways of explaining and grieving death in unique ways. As a rule of thumb most children will benefit from having honest and open dialogue around death particularly when it has been experienced first hand.

When Your Child Learns of Death Through Someone Else

As your children explore their social world, they will be exposed to other children and adults that speak about death. This can come from peers at early childhood services, school, friends, family. We cannot control where and when our children are exposed to conversations about death, so what we need to do is support our children with resilience to the topic through open and honest conversations with them about it.
It can feel very distressing as a parent when your child comes home speaking about the topic of death. This can be especially concerning when the topic is brought up in a way that creates worry and fear in our children. This can also have an added layer of concern for you when your child is talking about death in the context of a game played with peers, such as, “I’m going to kill you”, “I’m going to chop your head off and you’ll die”. As children have very active imaginations, whilst they are still young they struggle to differentiate cause and effect within reality and those within their fictitious worlds of make believe. As children get older they begin to become better at separating the two but for younger children the more they are exposed to violent games with peers, violence of television and deflections away from conversations around death, the more they can become emotionally detached from death and a loss of empathy and understanding of its true finality can occur.

What Can We Do To Build Resilience Towards The Topic of Death

One of the most powerful tools at your disposal as a parent is actually to talk about death. As parents we can have an ingrained anxiety of the conversation for fear of scaring our children, exposing them to things they cannot comprehend, damaging them emotionally etc. These fears we house are often just that… fears… and not a true indication of reality. There are ways in which we can talk to our children about death that is supportive, age appropriate and builds their resilience. The key is to actually talk about it. In order to support this conversation we can try the following strategies:
• Be Brave – One of the hardest parts of approaching this topic is our own fears around it. Fear of saying it wrong, scaring our children, upsetting them in some way etc. It takes a lot of resilience on our behalf to be brave and open the dialogue with our children. Staying open minded and curious about their thoughts and beliefs around death helps to establish this open and trusting conversation. You may like to say something along the lines of, “wow, you are really worried about this. What part is scaring you the most, I want to hear you and talk to you about this?”

• Be Honest – There is an element of honestly that relieves pressure and fear without overwhelming. Finding that line is very much dependant on your own child and only you will know that limit. Being honest about death can be as simple as not brushing off the topic and letting children know it is real and it is something that can be sad. Being truthful can be simply opening up about the process of death (and what that may look like in your unique family) and exploring the finality of it. For example, “Ma Ma has died and that means we do not get to see her anymore. We are going to have a funeral for her where we get to say our goodbyes one last time. We will be very sad for a while but it will get better and we will one day think of her and smile instead of feel sad”, “Johnny talked about death at preschool today huh? I would like to hear what you think it is? You’re really worried about this, I want to talk to you more about what is making you scared?”

• Don’t Rush Them Through Their Thoughts and Feelings – one of the most distressing things as a parent is seeing our children upset or hurt. We get an overwhelming urge to protect them, comfort them and take away their pain. These are our feelings, not theirs. Our children need to be able to feel what they need to feel and know that what they are feeling is normal and okay. This can be feelings of fear, concerns around loss, anxiousness, unwillingness to play with others who have death in their games etc. If we try to rush them through or even distract them away from their feelings around death you can inadvertently create greater fear around it. This goes for conversations around death outside of first hand experiences. Children are curious, therefore they will ask questions and constantly seek answers to things. If we push these feelings and thoughts aside or unconsciously dismiss them we can accidentally cause fear and concern around them bringing up their curiosity and feelings on this topic with us and your child may seek these answers in other ways which may not align with our parenting beliefs (i.e. talking more to their friends, absorbing more violence from television shows they are watching, experimenting with death and violence through dramatic play).

• Monitor What Types of Exposure to Death They Have (Where Possible) - Whilst you cannot control what your child experiences in every facet of their lives. It is best to try and control what you can for as long as you can. Television shows, video games and advertising that expose children to violence aren’t necessarily bad, however, it is the continued exposure that causes the problem. Being present to monitor, talk through and guide children’s understanding when exposed to instances of death and violence through media will support them to have a better understanding of it.
There is a lot of research around this topic, but the most relevant piece of information from this research in the context of talking about death, is to limit continued exposure to shows and games that depicts violence which results in death. Television shows and video games that older siblings, cousins or close friends may play around younger children can have a profound effect on children’s fear of death and their prevalence for misunderstanding death.
As we spoke of before, younger children have not developed the capacity to differentiate reality from fiction very well and they do this only through growing and developing. Older children are better at this and can be more capable of engaging in games and shows that expose them to violence related death. The research indicates that with repeated exposure to violence and violence related death, children’s capacity to empathise and understand the true impact of this violence is restricted. This then leads to them exploring death and violence in their play far more than others. Whilst superhero play and other forms of rough and tumble play is encouraged for its amazing benefits, when the games and conversations become morbid and gore-related it may indicate the need to monitor more regularly and strictly what and how much violence and violence related death your children are exposed to.

The main take away from exploring this topic is to ensure that we as parents are brave in our conversations, support our children to feel what they need to feel and to know it is okay, and to be truthful with the conversation in age appropriate ways to support not only trust but their resilience.

Written by Kelly West