6 Questions a Child Might Ask About a Recent Death in the FamilyKenny Scott | Feb 24, 2017 | Child bereavement
Are you unsure of how to answer your child’s questions about the death of a loved one?
If you’ve recently suffered a loss in the family, you have my deepest sympathies. Explaining about death to a child – especially if they are particularly young – can often be a tough task, and you may be preparing yourself for many questions.
Children tend to have a natural curiosity about the Great Unknown, and especially when it comes to death, they will want to know what it feels like, if the loved one is ever coming back, what happens to the loved one now, and even if they are going to die, too.
Sometimes knowing what to say to these questions can be incredibly difficult, and you may be worried about saying the wrong thing at such a delicate time.
Below, I’m going to use my experience as a child bereavement counsellor to help talk you through some of the most common questions children ask about the death of a loved one, and the best way to respond.
1. Is death like sleeping?
Regardless of what you believe, it’s important not to refer to death as if your loved one is simply sleeping, as this idea can be particularly frightening for young children. It’s easy for a child to become confused and acquire the fear that they are going to die in their sleep.
As you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of problems, including the child avoiding sleep altogether!
I find the best way to explain death is by saying that we all need our bodies to live, and when our bodies become ill and medicine can’t help to make it better, they will eventually just stop working. And when our body no longer works, it means we are dead.
As for what happens after death, it’s okay to say that you don’t know, but to share your beliefs or what you’d like to think happens after a person has died. Ask your child what they believe happens, and allow them to take comfort from that belief, if it helps.
2. Will they come back?
This is another common question, and one I hear a lot, particularly from younger children who sometimes have difficulty accepting that death is final. In this case, it’s vital to be very clear about this from the get-go.
My advice is to tell them that no, the loved one won’t be back; no matter how much we miss them, or try to get them back, they won’t ever be coming back – not in a week, a month or even a year.
‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’ by Doris Stickney is a good book to read to young children about this, as denial is one of the stages of grief, and if they’re going through that stage, it may make it more difficult for them to understand the finality of death.
3. What happened to him/her?
I understand that this question can be a particularly difficult one to answer, but I always advise being very truthful here, as your child will have picked up bits and pieces from conversations and from what you’ve already told them.
Keeping this information from a child, or telling them something other than the truth, can be particularly hurtful if the child finds out from someone else, such as from another child in the school playground.
You can be basic about the information to start with, as long as that information is honest, and gradually give them more details when they ask, or if you think it’s needed.
TIP: I know that answering honestly can be particularly difficult in the case of a suicide, so read my blog post on the subject for more guidance.
4. Will I die, too?
The best thing to say here is to explain that we will all die at some point in our lives, and most of the time it’s when we are old – however, there are times when younger people die due to accidents or illnesses.
It’s important to explain here that just because someone they know has died, it doesn’t mean they are going to die, too. Tell them that they are healthy, and by keeping themselves safe, there’s no reason why they can’t live long, full lives.
5. Is it my fault?
This may seem like an unusual question to ask, but actually it’s very common for children to think the death of a loved one or family member is their fault; maybe because of a thought they had, or something they said to the loved one who has died.
Because of this unfounded guilt, it’s absolutely crucial to stress that it’s not their fault, and to explain the reason why the person has died – that way, there’s no doubt whatsoever about any of the blame falling to them.
What if my child hasn’t asked any questions?
Sometimes children don’t like to ask the questions above, or don’t know how, and are very upset. Other times, they might have lots of questions, but are hesitant about asking someone close to them for fear of hurting/upsetting the person further.
I’ve often found that speaking to a less immediate relative or close family friend can help a child open up and ask the questions they’ve been holding in.
In my role as a bereavement counsellor, I once worked with a child who hadn’t asked any questions at all, so eventually I posed some of them back to him, such as: “Are you wondering what happened?” and: “Are you wondering if they’ll come back?”
It turned out he had been wondering all of these things, but simply didn’t know how to ask or how to bring it up in conversation. It may be that giving your child the opportunity to ask questions or even posing some back to them will help them to finally get the answers they need.
What if I don’t have the answer to their question?
If you don’t have the answer to a question, it’s okay to say so. If it’s a question you can find out the answer to, just say you’ll get back to them when you’ve found out. If not, then you could refer to what other people believe, or what you believe yourself – and ask them what they think.
I’m very sorry for your loss, but hope this blog post has gone some way to providing you with some much-needed guidance when answering some of your child’s biggest questions about the death of a loved one.
Every child experiences grief differently. Your child may find it difficult asking some of these questions, in which case they may prefer to talk to a less immediate family member or friend – or you could try posing some questions back to your child to help them open up.
If you’re looking for ideas for what to do with your loved one’s ashes, you’re welcome to read our ebook: ‘6 Things You Can Do With Your Loved One’s Ashes’.