Explaining to kids about death is never easy. In my book, Why Do People Die? I try to help kids understand death, but death is not an easy subject to understand… at any age.
Even as adults, none of us knows with certainty what waits for us after our last breath. Our religious, spiritual, or other beliefs may suggest to us that heaven, or reincarnation, or some other particular enentuality will be our next stop on the road to eternity. But, while people who have been clinically dead and revived have spoken of seeing a light or feeling peace before their hearts were restarted, nobody has actually been to heaven (or hell or limbo or somewhere inside a new person waiting to be born) and come back to reliably report on it. In short, none of us can be truly certain what waits for us: heaven, reincarnation, nothingness, or some other reality we can’t even guess at.
And if we can’t be informedly certain ourselves as to what awaits us after that final breath, how can we tell our children? At best we can tell them — perhaps with more assurance than the subject deserves — what we believe. (And if we’re not 100% certain we’re telling them the truth, it’s certainly the same sort of benign lie as the Santa myth.)
In fact, when you’re talking to a four-year-old, even if you aren’t at all sure that there’s any life after death, it may be the kindest lie to assure him that dead people go to heaven. With a 14-year-old, admitting your doubt, or even your firm belief that when a person dies, that’s it, it’s over is not so terrible. But with little ones, it’s kinder to leave them believing that even though Daddy isn’t here anymore, and we’ve lost him, he’s gone to a better and happier place.
Religion helps, too, in explaining why death happened—regardless of your personal religious beliefs: “His body was too messed up by the car accident/the cancer/the heart attack. If he had gone on living, he would have been in terrible pain all the time. There was no way for the doctors to fix him, so God thought it was the kindest thing to let him die and come up to heaven.”
I don’t advocate saying, as some people do, “God was lonely for Daddy and wanted him up there to keep him company.” The child’s view of God will then be that God is very selfish; He didn’t care that you and the child wanted and needed Daddy. God was looking out for only his own interests.
But what of the atheist who steadfastly wants no mention of God or heaven in her explanation to her child of what death is? A variation of “His body was too messed up…” can be constructed that omits God: “He was very sick/He was badly injured, and if he had stayed alive he would have been in terrible pain all the time. It would have been awful. Not just like a skinned knee or broken arm.” [Important to distinguish between what happened to Daddy and typical childhood injuries.] “Sometimes our bodies have to shut down to protect us from all that awful pain.”
And I have always favored the explanation (how you word it will—as with everything we’ve discussed here—depend on the child’s age, as well as whether this is his first experience with death) that emphasizes “Only his body is dead. In a sense, he’s alive as long as you remember him. As long as you remember him and love him and talk about him and think about him, you can feel him close to you even though his body isn’t here anymore.”
I also believe it’s important to let the child know that it’s OK to cry. And not just now but in the months ahead, when he or she starts missing Daddy all over again because something reminded her of him or because she saw her best friend snuggling with the friend’s dad, or because she caught a glimpse of the hockey game as she changed channels, and Daddy was an avid hockey fan. Naturally this message needs to be delivered to girls, too, but boys need to hear it especially; too often they’re told to “Be brave.” “Be a man.” “Big boys don’t cry.” Utter nonsense! There’s nothing “brave” about holding back honest tears, and men and big boys do cry…at least, some of them do, and the rest need to learn how!
Dad’s death will be easier to explain if the child has had a previous experience with death. A dog, cat, hamster, or even a goldfish that died will have familiarized the child at least a little with the concept of end-of-life. Even the death of a relative the child didn’t know well—say, Great-Uncle Edgar from Des Moines, whom the child met only once and “knew” mainly from Christmas cards and birthday money—can help pave the way. The concept of “He isn’t alive anymore. He died” will not be a total mystery.
Not that kids all grasp the concept of death correctly and instantaneously. Some (depending on their ages) do ask questions such as “When will Daddy be home from heaven?” or “When can we go to heaven and visit Daddy?” To them, if heaven is a place, it must be accessible, if not by car then by plane. Daddy always came home from business trips to Detroit. Now he’s gone away again. When will he be home? And if we can go to Phoenix to visit Great-Grandma, when can we go to heaven to visit Daddy? It will take a little explaining to help the child grasp that heaven isn’t a place you can fly, drive, or take a ship or train to. Nor can the child get blown there by a Kansas cyclone. And Daddy can’t return in a balloon (or any other conveyance).
Important to stress is the fact that Daddy didn’t go away voluntarily. He didn’t desert the child/the whole family knowingly or willfully. Feelings of desertion are, to a degree, inevitable when a parent has died, but you can help the child by making sure he understands that Daddy didn’t leave voluntarily. (Unless, of course, the death was a suicide…and talking about explaining that would require a whole other article, but fortunately suicide isn’t a common circumstance.)
Death and what comes after it: It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries, so no wonder it’s difficult for children to understand! But if your spouse has died, help your child to understand as best you can, and don’t berate yourself if she doesn’t “get it” easily. Even adults have long been baffled by the mystery of death and what follows it, and it’s not a mystery that has a neat ending at the conclusion of a novel. Just do the best you can and, over time, your child will grasp the concept better.