Ask the Undertaker- How do you explain death to a child?
Ask the Undertaker! If you have a question about death or funeral service, please feel free to email Sue and Brandon from Nasinec Funeral Home in Wells at email@example.com. Whatever your question may be, we will do our best to answer it honestly and candidly.
How do you explain death to a child?
The death of a loved one can be difficult to understand at any age. For children, the concept can be especially difficult to grasp, and the emotions that accompany it may be even harder to manage. Our first instinct with children might be to protect them from any pain or harsh reality with euphemisms or explanations like, “Grandma is just sleeping and will not wake up.” While it may seem this softens the sting of death, it might actually do more harm than good. For example, if a child is told that Grandma has gone to sleep and cannot wake up, suddenly bed-time may become a struggle. They may resist falling asleep for fear of never waking.
Children have an incredible ability to learn and understand new ideas. This is why, at any age, honesty is the best policy. It is important to use the correct words like “dead” or “died.” It is also important to explain what has physically happened. The deceased’s heart has stopped beating, and they are no longer breathing. This explanation uses knowledge and ideas that children are familiar with, which helps them to understand. It may be helpful to remind them where their own heart and lungs are in their body, or to have them hear or feel their own heart beat and breath.
If you have a spiritual or religious background, it is a good time to discuss that aspect of the child’s life and how it relates to death. A major component of any faith is accepting that you may not have all the answers, and this can be a difficult lesson for children who ask many questions. One example of this is the Christian concept of heaven. It can be comforting for children to know that their loved one’s spirit has left their body and now is in heaven. It would be normal for them to wonder where heaven is and what it is like. Euphemisms or imagery of angels floating amongst clouds in the sky may seem like an easy way to answer their questions, but it is okay to tell a child that you do not know the answer. It is better to say, “I don’t know,” than to make something up. If it is your belief, then tell them that you do not know where heaven is, nor what it looks like, but that you believe it is wonderful place where the deceased has gone.
With the instinct to protect or shelter children, the inclination may be to limit their involvement in the visitation or funeral. However, a visitation and funeral can serve the same purpose to a child as it does to adults, and not including them could be a great disservice. A child should be allowed to grieve openly in their own way in the presence of their family, and to know that they are loved and supported. Grief can make a child feel very alone or isolated, but if they are encouraged to talk about what has happened and how they feel, they may realize they are not alone. Knowing that they are welcomed at the funeral service affirms the fact that they were an important person to the deceased. It also provides an opportunity to remember and share memories or stories with their family, which is cathartic and integral to coping with a loss at any age.
If a child is going to attend a viewing, visitation, or funeral, it is beneficial to explain to them what they may see or hear beforehand. If there will be a viewing, it is okay to tell them that it may look like the deceased is only sleeping because their eyes will be closed and they will be laying down, but then reiterate the fact that they are dead. If the deceased has chosen to be cremated, a truthful description of cremation is necessary. They need to understand that their loved one’s body has been burned in a special oven, but it did not hurt, and now their ashes have been put in a special jar called an urn. Talk about the events that will occur beforehand, and continue to explain them as they are happening. Of course, if a question arises that you do not know the answer to, the funeral director can be an excellent source of information to children. We are always happy to assist in answering the tough questions.
When explaining death to a child, do not underestimate their capacity to learn or grasp new ideas. Often it is more difficult for an adult to discuss death so honestly and openly than it is for a child to understand it. If they ask a question that makes you feel uncomfortable or emotional, do not hesitate to show your discomfort or emotion, as children learn from not just your words but also your actions. If you are honest and truthful in your own grief, children will learn to do the same. Resist the temptation to shield children from the pain of loss, as it is an inevitable part of life they must learn to understand and cope with in a healthy way.
Sue Nasinec is a licensed mortician, and owned Bruss-Heitner Funeral Home in Wells, with her husband Nathan, who is the funeral home’s insurance agent writing pre-need policies. Sue has served the community for over 26 years, and in early 2022, moved the mortuary into the new funeral establishment in the Wells Business Park, thus, renaming the funeral home Nasinec Funeral Home and Crematory in Wells. Brandon Nasinec works at Nasinec Funeral Home, and is currently working his internship to receive his license as a mortician, creating the second generation of our family-owned business.
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