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Death and dying: Mama, why do we die?

Explaining Life's Circle: Helping Children Understand Death with Care

by Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen

Since my father-in-law’s passing in February, my youngest son, at the tender age of 7, has been pondering profound existential questions regarding life and death. His innocent curiosity and genuine concerns have deeply impacted him.

In our heartfelt conversations, he often expresses worry about the day when I won’t be around anymore, and the fear of losing loved ones haunts his young mind. It is of utmost importance to reassure him that I plan on living a long and healthy life and that I will always be present for him and his brother.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the fear of death is normal among children, but with compassionate guidance, we can help alleviate their worries and foster a sense of security.

Be Honest and use age-appropriate language

When discussing the concept of death with children, it is essential to address their concerns in a manner they can understand and find solace in. Instead of relying on euphemisms or parables like “he passed away” or “It was God’s will,” it is better to communicate with clear and honest language.

Children, especially those under 10, perceive the world in black and white, making it challenging for them to grasp complex information or abstract concepts related to life and death. By speaking slowly, taking pauses, and providing information in manageable doses, we prevent overwhelming them with too much information, allowing them time to process and ask questions.

Honesty is key, as children can sense when information is being sugar-coated or withheld, which can lead to increased anxiety. Using words like “dead” or “died” appropriately helps them understand the finality of death, fostering acceptance and coping mechanisms.

Death is a natural part of life

It is vital to convey to children that death is a natural part of the cycle of life. All living beings, including trees, plants, bees, and birds, experience this process. Explaining the interconnectedness of life and death can help children see death as a transformative journey rather than just an end.

By understanding the cyclical nature of life, they can begin to view death as a beautiful aspect of existence, recognizing that new life often emerges from what has passed. Sharing examples of how nature demonstrates this cycle can help children appreciate the profound interconnectedness of all living things. For example, in Autumn all the trees shed their leaves, and in Winter these leaves dry, but Spring brings new life — such is the cycle of life.

It is ok to be uncomfortable talking about death, but don’t lie

While it is tempting to avoid the conversation of death because you imagine that you are doing your child a favour, avoiding or changing the topic of death when children inquire about it can exacerbate their anxiety and confusion.

By normalizing conversations surrounding death, we help alleviate their fears of losing us and encourage them to focus on the living part of life. It is important to create a safe space for them to express their thoughts, emotions, and fears openly. By engaging in age-appropriate discussions and addressing their questions with patience and empathy, we provide reassurance and promote emotional well-being.

When a parent is away or unwell, children should not have death looming over their thoughts but rather an understanding that everyone’s health and well-being fluctuate. Open dialogue about life’s fragility and the importance of cherishing each moment can help children appreciate the value of time and strengthen family bonds.

Guide children through their existential questions

As adults, it is our responsibility to support children through grief and existential questions related to life and death. No matter what questions they ask, it is crucial to provide non-judgmental answers, offering them the space to explore their thoughts and emotions.

Nurturing a child’s understanding of life and death requires a delicate balance of honesty, reassurance, and age-appropriate communication. By using clear language, acknowledging death as a natural part of life’s cycle, and engaging in open and empathetic conversations, we empower children to process their emotions and fears in a healthy way, instead of shutting them down.

Remember, it is through love, understanding, and non-judgmental guidance that we help children develop a balanced perspective on life and death. By actively addressing their concerns and encouraging open dialogue, we equip them with the tools to face life’s challenges with resilience and emotional well-being.

Most importantly, when children sense that an adult is willing to listen to their questions and worries, they also learn to trust the adult. This trust fosters a strong bond that can endure from childhood through teenagehood and into adulthood, as the foundation of honest, nonjudgmental conversations has already been forged.

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