Sometimes children must deal with death and violence before they are ready. When there is a senseless act of violence, like a school shooting, even many adults have difficulty processing the news. Young kids often have difficulty grasping the idea that death is permanent, especially when other children or their friends die. Carefully explaining bad or tragic news to children helps them cope effectively and develop age-appropriate ways to process their grief.
Use Literal Terms
Young children haven’t developed the ability to think abstractly, making it difficult for them to understand complicated concepts. Although you may think the words “passed on” or “lost” are gentler, the Child Center and Adult Services recommends using the terms “death” or “dying” instead.
Euphemisms are especially difficult for children under the age of six to understand, so your youngster may think that a friend “went to sleep” means that she’ll wake up someday. Although it may seem blunt, being clear (but not graphic) in your terminology helps kids understand scary news.
Don't Do It Alone
Talking to a child about a violent death may be over your head. Seeking professional help may benefit you and your child when dealing with a tragedy like a school shooting or bombing such as the Boston Marathon. Since January 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 4,500 people have been trained in children's mental health treatment and aid, according to an infographic by securitydegreehub.com. A professional can help your child work through their feelings and questions and help the communication flow between you and your child.
Let Your Belief System Guide You
Many children are naturally curious about death and the afterlife, although the concept of heaven is likely too abstract for children under age 5. Use child-friendly terms to convey your family’s beliefs about the existence of God. For example, ask your daughter what she thinks heaven is like. This reassures her that those who died are safe and happy after death. If your family isn’t religious, consider a nature-based explanation of what happens after death. Explain that our bodies become part of the earth when we die, helping new trees and flowers grow.
Simple explanations about what happens after death satisfy children more than complicated theological discussions. The National Institute of Health suggests explaining to your child that different people have different beliefs about death. This gives your child the space to form their own conclusions about death and the afterlife.
Anticipate Questions About Your Own Death
It’s natural for a child to move the discussion of death to his parents or himself. Use age-appropriate reassurances, but be sure to avoid making promises you can’t keep. An older child may be ready for explanations about financial or funeral plans. Whichever aspect you use to address questions about your own death, be sure to use this opportunity to explain why you use safety precautions. Explain why it's important to lock doors, be safe at school, don't talk to strangers and tell an adult if they don't think something is right.
Avoid Assumptions About Your Child’s Reaction
When talking about a loved one’s death, it’s important to anticipate a range of reactions. Perhaps your child will simply accept your explanation and not talk about it for another six weeks. Other children may cry for several days straight. Continually check in with your child about how he’s reacting to the news. Talking about death isn’t just one conversation. Ideally, it’s a lifelong dialogue that includes feelings about death, fears and anxieties and memories of the person who died.