Children and Death

There is often much discussion about whether or not children should be involved, and around, when a death has happened, and afterwards at the funeral. Children are often far more robust than we give them credit for.  What they do not need are mysteries.  Children will smell out a lie or a half truth a mile away.  It is much better to tell them what has happened, explain what it means, and what will happen next, rather than assume that they are too young to understand, and try to wrap up the truth with half truths and euphemisms.

Frequently today we want to sanitize death, and not speak the words about death out loud.  How often do we hear people saying someone has ‘passed away’ or that we have ‘lost’ our Mum? As adults we know what the code means, but for children it just causes more confusion.  If we lose something we go and find it. What does ‘passed away’ mean?  Passed away where?  Listed below are some of the most frequently used euphemisms about death.  All should be avoided wherever possible, not just for children, but for adults as well.

She has fallen asleep.
This particular expression is guaranteed to stop children going to sleep.  If Gran fell asleep and vanished or died, what will happen to me if I go to sleep?

We have lost Gran.
This expression is inappropriate and very casual.  ‘We went out shopping and we lost Gran.’ Oh well, never mind, we can always find another one!  How much fear must this instil into a child?  Imagine being lost knowing that, when your grandmother was ‘lost’, she was never seen again?

He has passed over.
‘He passed over’.  What did he ‘pass over’?  We know as adults what we mean by this, but to a child it means nothing.

Jesus loved him, or wanted him, more.  He was so good Jesus wanted him.
These expressions can really help children turn off from God or Jesus.  If God wanted my Dad and took him away from me, why should I have anything to do with God?  He might take me away as well.  One child became really naughty after his aunt died.  Eventually, after months of being very difficult at home and at school, he explained that he was being naughty so that God would not take him away like he had his aunt.  He had heard someone say she was such a good person that God had taken her, so he was working hard to be bad to ensure the same thing did not happen to him!

She has gone on a long journey.
People come back from long journeys. We take holidays that involve long journeys. This just adds to a child’s confusion.

She is resting.
Again, this is very likely to stop a child wanting to go to bed and sleep.

Should children go to funerals?

This question is often asked before a funeral, and there is no right or wrong answer, but there are things that should be considered beforehand which may help to make the decision.

Going to the funeral allows children to be part of the saying ‘goodbye’.

Saying ‘goodbye’ is important for children when someone is still alive.  When leaving children one usually says, ‘I am going now’, rather than just vanishing.  It is the same when someone has died and is an important part of the journey through grief. This is especially so when someone has died unexpectedly. Just as adults need to say ‘goodbye’ at the funeral, so do children. It helps the reality of the death to be seen.  Seeing a coffin, though hard, does help to remove any thoughts that the death might not have happened.

Going to the funeral can reduce the fear children might have of something happening that they sense they are being protected from. The unknown may be much more frightening than the reality.

What happens at a funeral is something which adults are often frightened of, and it is important that that fear is not put onto children.  Both adults and children need information before such a big event.  Before going on holiday we tell children what is going to happen, and it should be the same before a funeral.  If children know what to expect then they have nothing to fear.  If the coffin is going to be in the church before the service take them there to see what it looks like, or take them to the undertakers and show them there.  Tell them what will happen through the service, when the coffin will leave, and what will happen to it. 

Going to a funeral may reduce fears that children might have from something they may have seen on the television or in a film. Often the reality is much better than the images they may have.

We never know what images children may have seen of death and funerals.  There are so many gruesome images around, so it is important that children are told what is going to happen.  If they have seen pictures of skeletons or horror films or video games depicting frightening images of death, they may expect such things to be seen at a funeral.  The reality is much gentler and easier to cope with.  For example, one child assumed that his brother’s body would be taken out of the coffin when it was buried.  But with facts given clearly all such fear may be removed and attending a funeral can become a positive experience.

If children are going to go to a funeral there is no reason why they cannot be involved in planning what will happen.

Being involved in the planning of a funeral helps children feel part of what is happening.  If a parent has died they might help to choose some of the music, or a favourite reading.  They might like to do a reading or place some flowers on the coffin or light a candle.  Allow them to think with you what would be good and what would work for the whole family.

Often the reason for not wanting children to go to a funeral is because the adults are frightened, so they put their fear onto the children.

It is very easy for us to put our fears onto children. Just like children, adults may feel uncertain about going to a funeral.  It is important that adults feel free to ask questions and be involved in planning the funeral.  Children are often much more able to accept situations than we given them credit for.

Sometimes people worry that children might get upset it they attend a funeral.

Yes, getting upset is quite normal at a funeral. So long as children are being well looked after and know what is going to happen, then getting upset is something that they can be helped to cope with, and live through.

Going to a funeral may allow children to see and learn that crying and showing emotion at any age is normal and alright.

Adults may fear that the children will be upset if they see adults crying for the first time.  This does not have to be a negative experience.  Knowing that showing emotion is something that happens to both adults and children is a good thing for children to see.  Again, warn them that they may see adults crying. Talk about it and much of the uncertainty will be removed.  Funerals are sad events and sad events can make people of any age cry.

Some people feel that children will need looking after when the adults want to concentrate on what is going on and not have to think of the children

If the adults feel that they do not want the responsibility of looking after children during the service, which might be very understandable, then they can ask a friend or family member to take on the specific role of doing this. Place the children somewhere where they can see what is happening and where they can see the important adults in their lives.  It might be that at a given moment in the service they join the friend, or go and join their parents.  For example, at one funeral the children did not want to walk out behind the coffin, so just before the end of the service they walked out with someone who had been particularly asked to take them out, and they rejoined everyone later.  It was because of listening to the children that this was arranged. They wanted to be at the service, but felt that everyone would look at them if they walked out behind the coffin at the end. This way they were not put through that ordeal.

If children go to a funeral they can then talk about it afterwards and revisit the memories.

Having shared the funeral with others children can then be in a position to share the memories with their family and friends.  There isn’t this mysterious event that is talked about but which they are not part of.  There are no secrets, and no ‘no go’ areas which cannot be spoken about in front of the children.  Taking photos of the coffin before the funeral or of the grave afterwards allows the death to be part of everyone’s life.  These might be included in a book about the person who has died, so it shows their whole journey of life and death, including the funeral.  Making a scrap book for, or with, children, about the person who has died can be very helpful in allowing them to talk about the person who has died and their involvement in their life.

Explaining death to children.

Sometimes people ask how they should explain death to children.  One of the best ways to introduce the subject of death is when there hasn’t been one.  Obviously this may not always be possible but, if it is, get some of the excellent books that are around about animals dying (like Badger’s Parting Gift by Susan Varley, published by Picture Lions or I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm, Crown Publications) and have them on the bookshelf along with all the other books children have. 

Use the death of an animal to explain death.

Always take advantage of looking at death if a pet dies or a bird is found in the garden or park.  Look at the deadness of the animal and how still it is; it is no longer warm or breathing.  Explain about the heart beating, and the blood being pumped around the body, and how, when a creature dies, the heart stops working.  Encourage the child to feel your heart beating, or their heart beating.  Look at how we breathe in and out, and see how the animal is still.  Get a small mirror and hold it up to the child’s mouth and see how it fogs up from the child’s breath. This does not happen when the mirror is held against the dead animal’s mouth. By doing this the child is being helped to see what death looks like and feels like in a non-threatening way, helping to remove the mystery and possible fear.  If the child then has someone close to them die it is possible to refer back to the dead animal to remind them what happens when someone or something dies.

Hold a funeral for the animal.  Put it in a box, using the real words like coffin and burial and have a small ‘service’.  It is also possible to talk to children about cremation and burning the body.  Children can understand facts given to them in a clear precise way.  Having these conversations may well lead to more questions being asked, so always be prepared to answer them with honesty and truth.

Talking to children about what happens to the person when they die.

One of the other questions people often ask is what should one tell the children about life after death?  Since there are so many different beliefs about what happens after someone has died, the most important thing to impress on adults, when they are talking to children about this subject, is that if they are speaking to their own children they should speak of their beliefs, and if they are speaking to other people’s children they should try to ascertain what the child’s parents or family believe.  What is most difficult for children is when everyone they speak to tells them something different. 

In a western Christian culture many people will speak about the dead person having gone to heaven.  As adults we know what this means, but to a child it may sound like going to any other place.  ‘Daddy has gone to heaven’ or ‘Daddy has gone to Luton‘, mean the same.  When Daddy went to Luton, he came back. Obviously, when he goes to heaven, he won’t come back.  So somehow one has to try to convey to the child that this is a place from which Daddy won’t come back.  The ‘foreverness’ of death is something small children will not understand. Research has shown that the concept of the measurement of time is not fully understood until a child is around 5 or 6 years old, but of course from a very young age a child understands or feels separation, and that is what a newly-bereaved younger child is coping with. Be careful not to make heaven sound too wonderful, otherwise children my say they want to die and go to join the person in heaven. 

There are some excellent ways of explaining life after death to children using some beautiful imagery – ‘the chrysalis and the butterfly’ and ‘the water bug and dragonfly’ are just a couple.  The idea of the chrysalis shell, empty and used, ties in very well with the body being a shell which once held the essence of the person.  But, once the person dies, that person, or soul, flies free leaving behind the body now no longer needed.  Or the story of the water bug and dragonfly (Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney published by Continuum) where the water bug climbs up the water reed stem and turns into a dragonfly, and finds he cannot go back under the water to tell the other water bugs what has happened.  Or look at the cycle of a seed, growing, flowering, making seeds and dying, ready to grown again the next season.  The book Badger’s Parting Gift looks at how the person, or in this case animal, that has died lives on in the memory of those he loved because of all the things he taught them. The most important thing is that the child’s family say what they feel most comfortable with.  Some people will say that when it rains that is when the dead person is crying or taking a shower, others are very matter of fact – the person has died and that is that.  Obviously each belief system will have a clear understanding about what happens to us at our deaths.  One thing to be careful of is talking about heaven being ‘up there’. One child thought he was going to see his dead mother when he went in an aeroplane.

It is not unusual for children to show signs of regression when they have experienced the death of someone close.  Bed wetting, thumb sucking and nightmares are all normal, as are lack of concentration, lack of appetite and great lethargy.  It is important to remember that children grieve as adults do.

So, finally, tell the truth. Give facts and stick to what you believe.  Answer questions when asked, which may happen a lot and be very repetitive, and most important of all be there and offer much love and support.

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