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Talk to children about death

Mother talking to her children about death

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

Read more:

Book recommendations:

18 thoughts on “Prata med barn om döden”

  1. Can also tell about the children's book "Are there chocolate chocolates in heaven?", Canon good book! Highly recommended 🙂

  2. A very good post.
    We recently lost a baby at birth. The mother already had three children aged 8, 10 and 11 years, all three looking forward to meeting their new sibling.
    They all had to come to the birth, hold their siblings in the arms and say goodbye. They also attended the naming ceremony at the hospital and sat with the cousins at the coffin during the funeral ceremony. Around the coffin were also the siblings' favorite toys.
    For the first time after the death, we have invested extra time in family activities so that we can move forward together.
    Grief work has definitely been personal for all family members based on age, etc. Although we have been grieving together, we have handled and respected each other's own grief work.

  3. Hey! Just wanted to look in and say what a fantastic blog this is. I have read and read and read. And marvel at how factual, substantiated and wise it is. But still full of feeling and warmth. Extremely unusual combination of information about children in the more medical way.

    I have full understanding that time and energy are not always there, but here at least there is a faithful reader who eagerly awaits the beautiful spring day when the orcs come back and your writing glow with it. 🙂

  4. Hope, hope you will cope, have time / desire to continue blogging. Your sensible (where it suits personal) and well-informed advice is truly a fantastic base for a new first-time mom who has managed to keep much of her calm thanks to you ... At the same time, I am full of wonder, admiration and appreciation for being a professional, working hours and life situations there have been periods when you have been able to squeeze good advice to us in blog form ... Thanks for that and have to hope a little that there will be a continuation sometime in the future

    1. Thanks! We quit, or paused indefinitely, because none of us could blog anymore. We are full-time working grandchildren both. Maybe a time will come when both workload and family situation allow us to blog again. Then we start again. But right now it is not so. And not in February either. Then I get up every weekend and work three out of four weeks of which one week night. And the fourth week I will sleep, swim, be with my children and go to the opera. Also, it may happen that my children get sick in February…

  5. So nice post! I work as a nurse with severely ill patients who sometimes die and leave children of all ages and categories (children, grandchildren, siblings, etc.). Got a piece of advice once that I have taken from current infants and death, do not know what you think about it, but even if infants do not understand as older children, it is important that they be allowed to join. The person who gave me the advice seemed to like to photograph the child with the sick person so that when the child grows older they can look at these and think that 'I was part, I was part of this' and was not left outside. This may be a comfort to a child who was very small when the relative died.

  6. Nice and important post. However, I am wondering about the first book tip, goodbye Mr Muffins? I have read it both for my soon to be 4 year old and at work (preschool teacher) but I don't understand why adults think it is so good? It is horrible (muffins suffer, hurt, alone, etc.) and strange. There are other nice emotional picture books about just grief and someone dying.
    Other: very nice post.

  7. How nice. And so timely. We have recently lost a close relative and I have been thinking about how much my young children really understand. Good book tips, should read.

  8. What a great post! Although I was still a bit surprised ..
    I have very strong memories of being scared to death when I was about 4-5 (know the age because of memories from where we lived at that time). I am reminded that I was scared just because "then everything ends" and that "when you die there is nothing more, I will not be there anymore, I am just gone. Everyone will only be gone one day ”.

    These memories I have thought of on and off over the years, even in my younger teens, and I have been fascinated by how I thought and what made me think just that!

  9. Last summer I passed some girls playing in the yard. One of them is 8. Hn asked her friend what she thinks happens after death.

  10. Very good post. However, I wonder a little about one of the reading tips; The Brothers Lionheart. I love the book and obviously read it when I was little (and a little bigger ...) but a book to read to understand death I do not know. It presupposes a belief in life after this and if you, like me, and many others, do not believe in it, it will be a little strange to use it in conversation with your child. Does anyone have any other suggestion?

    1. I do not believe in a life after death as such anymore than following the cycles of nature. But after seeing the anxiety that my daughter, who is only 4 years old, is facing death and separations, I am still prepared to give her the comfort that you live on even though I try to be clear that it is not the body that lives on without the love that the person felt. I feel that as she gets older we can discuss a little more, and maybe also go in that people think differently.
      My opinion is really that facts do not always give so much comfort, and if you are afraid, worried or sad then comfort may be more important than facts. When you get older you get a different understanding and can also create your own perception and belief.

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