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Talking to Children About Death

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at how parents can talk to children about death. Children at different levels of development will understand differently, so talking to children in different age groups is discussed.

Special Trips to the Hospital

Charlotte knew from the time she was three years old that there was something special about her. She got to take trips that her siblings didn't, mom and dad seemed to take special care with her, they spent more time with her than with her brother and sister, and she had adult friends that her siblings didn't have. As she got a little older, Charlotte realized what the sad looks on the adults' faces meant. She often heard the word 'cancer', and she also heard the word 'death' when they were obviously talking quietly about her. Charlotte grew up with the reality of how special she was, but her brother and sister had a different reality.

Charlotte's brother and sister, Tom and Candy, were both a little bit older than she was. Tom was three-years and Candy a year-and-a-half older. At first, neither had any idea why Charlotte got to take trips they weren't invited on, but as they grew up, their parents started talking to them about the possibility of Charlotte's death. As the siblings grew, they had different questions and understood a little more with each serious talk.

Talking About Death with Young Children

Young children, from birth to five years, may not understand what death is, but they do know that something is wrong. Their parents need to sit Tom and Candy down and talk to them in real terms about what is happening with their younger sister. This means that they need to use terms, such as dying and death, because children may misinterpret softer terms such as sleeping.

Children in this age group also need to be assured that death is not a punishment and it is not something that happened to a sibling because of something that they did. Tom and Candy also need to understand that Charlotte may not be able to come back from her special trip. Helping them to understand the permanence of death may be impossible at this age, but they should not be kept out of the discussion.

Middle Aged Children

In this age group, between 6 and 12, children will better understand what death means. Although magical thinking (when a child does not fully grasp a real situation so makes up, from the information they have, a separate reality) may still be present in the younger members of this age group, they will still have some understanding of what death is. As Tom and Candy go through this age group, they will understand how the body works, so they can be told more. They will begin to grasp that death is permanent.

At this age, children need their parent to use concrete examples that will help them understand. They may also have questions about specific medical facts. It is a good idea to give them as much information as they can handle. However, Tom and Candy need to know that they have the support of their parents. Sometimes these children will feel neglected. It may be a good idea for their parents to take Tom and Candy on outings or let them have some special moments of their own.

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