The Sharing Place is a grief support center in Salt Lake City where children come to learn about death.
At The Sharing Place, children who have lost parents and other family members come together during bimonthly counselor-led group meetings to talk, heal, and get an understanding of what it means to die.
“I try to explain the cause of death using really basic terms that are developmentally appropriate for the child I’m speaking to,” Jill Macfarlane, development director and child life specialist at The Sharing Place, tells BuzzFeed Life. Toddlers, for example, tend to grieve in energetic bursts because they have short attention spans. Explanations usually need to be short and frequent for them to stick.
When someone dies, they’re not “asleep.”
Referring to dead animals or people as “asleep” can cause some kids to develop a fear of sleeping, and they might worry that they’ll never wake up. “Kids are imaginative thinkers, so they can run wild with the idea of why someone is gone unless you explain it to them,” Macfarlane says.
Also, it’s possible to accurately explain death without sacrificing your religious beliefs. “If you believe in heaven, you can talk about what happens to the soul,” Macfarlane says. “But we think that it’s important for the child to understand that the body isn’t working anymore — and some of them might want to know why.”
Understanding the finality of death is crucial for a child’s grieving process, according to Macfarlane
“In one meeting, I had a little boy who said that he didn’t know anyone who died, but he did know that his grandmother had a heart attack,” she says. “The parents didn’t explain that she had died after the heart attack.”
It’s worth making some distinctions between different types of death and illness.
That could be the difference between choosing and not choosing death, or between contagious and noncontagious illnesses. “We tell the children that someone chooses to murder someone else, but no one chooses to get cancer,” Macfarlane says.
She also works with kids whose siblings have died from the flu. “And while the flu is contagious, it’s important to explain that getting the flu doesn’t mean that you’re going to die,” she says. “Meanwhile, I’ll explain that Dad’s cancer or Mom’s heart attack is not contagious.”
Here’s how Macfarlane explains certain illnesses to young children:
• A heart attack is when your heart stops working and it can’t move your blood through your body.
• Kidney failure is when your kidneys — which are washing machines for your blood — stop working, your blood gets dirty, and it poisons your body.
• Overdose is when you have a sickness in your brain called addiction, it makes you take medicine that’s not good for you, and you take too much of it — but not all medicine is bad for you.
• Murder is when someone chooses to make your body stop working.
• Suicide is when you choose to make your own body stop working — and sometimes a sickness in your brain called depression can make you wish that your body would stop working.
Start talking to your kids about death as soon as possible. It’s easier to explain a dead bug than a dead family member.
“Parents might want to protect their children from the idea of dying, but death is a natural part of life and it’s important that kids understand,” Macfarlane says. When your kid starts to ask about where babies come from, it might be a good opportunity to talk simply about birth and death.
And if your child doesn’t want to talk about it, take a hint. “Some children are satisfied with a basic answer, but others might have more questions,” she says. It takes time for a child to process that someone is gone, so questions might come up over the weeks following someone’s death rather than immediately afterward. Let your child know that they can ask you anything and you’ll talk it through with them.
And if your kid asks you, “What happens if you die?” tell them that someone who loves them will take care of them.
“At a young age, kids think a lot about themselves,” she says. “If your child asks, tell them that you will try really hard not to die, but if you did, then daddy would take care of you, and if something happened to Daddy, then Grandma would take care of you, and so on.” Reassure them that they will always be taken care of.
It’s OK to say “I don’t know.”
“Parents feel like they have to have an answer for everything, but it’s OK if you can’t answer some of your child’s questions,” Macfarlane says. She recommends saying something like: “I’ve never died before, so I’m not really sure. Sometimes bodies just stop working and we don’t know why.”
You can set boundaries that still feel supportive for your child.
“If your child is talking about death with other children in a way that feels inappropriate, talk to them about a safe time and place where you can talk about it together,” Macfarlane says.
Another way to help them understand is by doing this 20-second listening exercise:
You can get more ideas about how to talk about death in this episode of This American Life.
To help a child grieve, be honest, open, and — most importantly — celebrate the person’s life.
Encourage your kid to start an art project or a journal entry that captures something they remember or love about the person who died.
“It’s so hard to remember things from your childhood,” Macfarlane says. “We want to help our kids preserve memories of their loved one so that they can carry those moments with them for the rest of their lives.”
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