Because death sometimes comes unexpectedly, it can be difficult to explain to a child.
But because death is inevitable, it is both helpful and healthy to tackle the subject with a child.
There are several useful tips that Kerrie Noonan, clinical psychologist and director of The GroundSwell Project, suggests will be helpful.
They include not comparing death to sleeping; talking openly about the impending death of a loved one; using plain language; being honest; and allowing children to ask questions in their own time.
Talking about ‘it’ should not be taboo
Kerrie suggests society needs to more openly talk about death and not treat it as a ‘taboo’ subject. Surveys show about only a quarter of people feel comfortable talking about death. She wants that to change.
The topic of death is no different than talking about sex, bullying and mental health.
“It is all about trust and honesty – parents make sure children can come to them to talk about anything. The topic of death is no different than talking about sex, bullying and mental health,” she says Kerrie.
By equipping parents, Kerrie says it will strengthen family relationships and also build communities that better deal with death.
No ‘best age’ to discuss death
The best time to talk about it is when it happens, says Kerrie. “It is through experience that people learn best, so include children in hospital visits and in dying rituals, especially if someone the child is close to is expected to die. This gives them a warning and sufficient time to come to terms with it,” she said.
Use simple language when talking about death
It is best to use plain language such as dead, died, their heart stopped and coffin. Kerrie suggests something like “his heart stopped beating and then his body stopped working and he died”.
“This method also applies when answering questions. Respond in a factual and straightforward way,” she said.
Use teachable moments about death
A teachable moment can be when a pet dies. “For example, don’t flush the goldfish or quickly replace pets that die,” Kerrie says. “Children learn a great deal from pet funerals and about grief.”
Kerrie points out that children grieve differently to adults and can ask questions many months after a death. “Go at their pace and always be honest and upfront with them. Don’t make up false information or missing facts if you don’t know, as those can be more damaging than the actual truth. The best way is to tell them you are unsure and will find out more details for them.”
Don’t make up false information or missing facts if you don’t know.
The organisation also promotes conversations about dying through Dying To Know Day each August 8. Multiple events encourage individuals and community groups to plan for their end-of-life wishes.
For more information, visit thegroundswellproject.com/