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How to talk to a child about death?

Death, although natural and inevitable, is not a topic of everyday conversation. Often associated with a sense of sadness, grief and helplessness, it is not a simple topic for adults. It is all the more eagerly and often avoided during conversations with children. The topic cannot be avoided indefinitely. And All Saints' Day and the traditions associated with it are a good opportunity for a wise conversation.


Should you talk to your child about death?

Conversations about death and passing are not the easiest. Death is not a topic brought up in everyday conversations. Over coffee or while waiting for the bus, we are more likely to talk about current affairs. Death is often a difficult topic for adults to talk about. Not surprisingly, therefore, we are reluctant to bring it up in front of children. In addition, "life" and "death" are abstract concepts. It's not an apple, an elephant or a ball that we can show and discuss in a simple way. Often, too, in an effort to make things easier, adults further complicate the issue. By calling death a "long sleep" or a "long journey," they not only mislead, but may unknowingly ingrain fears in children, for example, about sleep.

Death is an important topic that recurs on the occasion of holidays (such as All Saints' Day) or random events (death in close proximity). In such situations, questions from curious children are often unavoidable. What to do then? It's best not to avoid answers and to talk calmly.

How and when to talk to a child about death?

Research shows that the understanding of the concept of "death" varies depending on the child's developmental stage. These stages correspond to the stages of cognitive development as defined by Piaget.

  • 0-3 years - the child is unable to understand the concept of death
  • 3-5 years - the child understands death as a transitional stage (a kind of dream or journey; according to children, the deceased knows where he is, what happens to him)
  • 6-8 years - the child begins to understand death as an irreversible process. He begins to identify death with a specific figure, e.g., the mortician. He does not know that death is natural, inevitable.
  • 9 years and older - the child begins to understand that death is unavoidable. He begins to recognize his own mortality. This is the stage of questions about whether specific loved ones or he himself will one day die.

Of course, every parent knows his child best. He is the one who knows when, under what circumstances and how to talk to the child. Autistic children may be more sensitive than their peers, which is worth taking into account during conversations.

When is it appropriate to talk? There is no clear answer to this question. Of course, when children ask. Otherwise they will satisfy their curiosity by seeking answers from other sources of knowledge. Opportunities for wise conversation are also random events, such as the death of a beloved dog.

"Mom, are you ever going to die?"

Questions asked by children are often not easy. Their answers should be tailored to the age of the person, the questions posed, the person's own beliefs (e.g., religious), and the child's level of cognitive skills.

What are some things to keep in mind when talking to autistic people?

  • Avoid intricate metaphors - there is a risk that they will further complicate the topic,
  • Don't compare death with "eternal rest" or "long sleep" - this can cause fear of falling asleep,
  • Don't compare death with "a long journey" or "going away" - such phrases may be taken too literally by autistic people. The child may feel abandoned, forsaken by the person who has passed away. He or she may have fears of traveling. He may also wait for the return of loved ones, resulting in misunderstanding of the situation and anger, for example, because they did not take him with them or did not say goodbye.
  • Don't say that death only affects older people - your child will quickly discover that death affects people of all ages,
  • Don't say that death is the result of illness - especially in preschool children, this can cause fear of infection.

How then to talk? The most important thing is honesty. It's not shameful to admit to a child that you don't know the answer to a question. Showing your own feelings, for example, when remembering the dead will show him that he doesn't have to hide his emotions. Difficult emotions are ok and everyone has a right to them. Dialogue is not just about answering questions and satisfying knowledge. It's also a chance for a person on the spectrum to articulate his medications and emotions related to death and passing. In the question "Mom, will you/me/grandpa/dad die someday?" the child expresses his concern. Divesting him will result in him not being able to work through these emotions. A better solution will be a sincere but wise answer adapted to the child's age and cognitive abilities, e.g. "yes, but I hope we all live to a happy and late old age."

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