Facts, advice and book tips on talking to children about death. By the priest and conversation therapist Katarina Tingström. How children of different ages understand death.
Talk to children about death
When my parents grew up in Sweden in the 1930s and 1940s, it was believed that children did not have any grief work. So it was common to keep the baby out when death stepped into the family. Nothing was told and children were not allowed to attend the funeral. Instead, the child was referred to his fantasies about why a relative disappeared and the adults cried. And fantasies are many times worse than the reality of a child. It is therefore not uncommon for me today to meet elderly people with unprocessed separations in their luggage and who are scared to death because of experiences as a child.
As a parent, I think I have an important task towards my children. Dare to talk about death, because death is such a big part of life and it's something that affects everyone. Not to scare my children with my own possible death anxiety, but to equip them so that they can bury me and mourn, the day they need it.
In this post I will write about how children can understand what death is, later two more posts will be added; one about children and grief and the other about children and funerals.
How can children understand what death is?
Children's ways of perceiving death follows their developmental stages. You usually talk about 5 different phases up to about 20 years of age: about 0-4 years, about 4-6 years, about 6-9 years, about 9-12 years and about 12-19 years. The phases flow into each other.
Talk to small children about death
For a child in this phase, what is life revolves around food and closeness. For the sake of survival, the child needs someone who provides food but who also provides closeness, a closeness that is both physical and mental. This means, for example, hugs and comfort and understanding.
At about 2 years of age, the child begins to understand that death is something that exists and that humans but also animals can die. But death is not perceived as irrevocable, but one can return from death. It's like being able to go back and forth to Västerås. This is why the child often thinks grandpa can come back from heaven when he dies and everyone just cries. When he comes home again, everyone is happy again and the problem is solved. Furthermore, the time perspective is rather short in the child and the memory image of a person can fade quickly.
Since the child cannot understand that death is definitive, the threat to life is not to die. Without the threat to life is to be abandoned.
The feeling of abandonment is a strong feeling and creates a fear. If a relative dies, the child's fear becomes abandoned, because how can the child survive? Some children then want to be closer, do not dare to sleep alone or be alone, but face the fear of being abandoned with a greater need for closeness.
book to read together: 'goodbye mr muffin' by Ulf Nilsson and Anna-Clara Tidholm
talk to a 4-6 year old about death
After about the age of 5, the children begin to get some idea of what death is, but death is still something that is not irrevocable. The dead can still come back. When my oldest son was this age, our neighbor died. He was surprised that she did not bring her furniture to heaven. Moving to the sky is like moving to a place like Stockholm, Malmö or Falun. And when you move, you bring your furniture with him, he certainly did.
It is at this age that they begin to read books like "How the Body Works". Interest is increasing for one's own body, how the heart beats and how the skeleton carries everything and what the muscles do. What is life at this age is to have a whole body. And what threatens life, death, is that the body is damaged. Going to the doctor and sticking your finger for a blood test can be a real struggle. For in the child, the notion can be that if there is a hole in the finger during the sampling, it can damage the intact body that the child can not live and it creates anxiety, because life runs out through the stick hole. This anxiety can be managed by putting on a patch and that is why this phase can be called the patch age. The best thing about patches is that they can sit anywhere, even outside of the clothes. By patching the child, it can help manage their fear and anxiety.
book to read together: 'deathbook' by Pernilla Stalfelt
Talk to pre-school kids about death
In this phase, you begin to come to an understanding that death is a biological fact, but you are not really there. The dead can still come back.
The child is beginning to understand more and more that they are their own individuals. Furthermore, the world is large and complex and in order to deal with it, life now consists of gaining control. At home, it is marked by all the control questions that come: "When will Dad come home?", "Should we go now?", "Why do they do that there?" The function of the control questions is precisely to create a sense of having control in order to deal with the threat. which is losing control, a horror of chaos. The anxiety that the child may feel is a death anxiety associated with loss of control.
If the family loses a family member and the adults mourn by, for example, crying, becoming passive and losing interest in what was previously fun, the child may be worried that it does not understand what is happening. By talking to the child, explaining what is happening and why, the child can regain a sense of control when it understands. One of my fondest memories of a funeral is when I meet a little girl in church when we buried her grandfather. She says to me, "Listen, the priest, you have to be sorry first to be happy again." I understand that there was a wise adult who explained to her why they cry in church and girl make this explanation into her explanation model and can manage to adults crying in church.
Book to read together: "We dig up grandma" by Måns Gahrton
Talk to middle school kids about death
Now the child begins to understand death as a biological fact and that we should all die one day. Death is now forever and if you die you can't come back.
They step into this phase of an existential period of turmoil. They can be scared of unexpected events and some children deal with it by becoming anxious and other children completely frightened. There are two ways to deal with death anxiety and the realization that everyone is deadly.
The child can give more rational and logical explanations of what has happened and since what gives life in this age is autonomy, independence, it can be important for the child to offer resistance. To claim that one does not want to go to a funeral, or be angry with the one who dies.
book to read together: 'brothers lionheart' by Astrid Lindgren
Talking to teenagers about death
In this phase, one understands the scope of being dead and what it means for a family to lose a loved one. Not only when the next of kin dies and also how it will affect the future.
It is who is alive and survives in this phase is their own identity. Parents' influence is exchanged for friends. One would rather turn to his friends with their thoughts about death and grief than to mum and dad. What is the threat to life during these years is the loss of one's own self and dying. This is why death anxiety is most evident during this period.
Book to read and discuss together "The stars shine on the ceiling" By Johanna Thydell
Book to read for you who have children:
"Support for children in mourning" by Göran Gyllenswärd (borrow from your library or look for an antique store)
”Grief in children - a guide for adultsby Atle Dyregrov
/ Katarina Tingström, conversation therapist, author and pastor of the Swedish Church