Discussing Death With Children: A Developmental Approach

Sydney G. Kronaizl

Disclosures

Pediatr Nurs. 2019;45(1):47-50. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Introduction

For many, death can seem like a taboo subject – a topic too dangerous or difficult to approach. This is especially true when death is to be discussed with children; adults treat the topic as something children must be protected from rather than prepared for (Bluebond-Langner, DeCicco, & Schwallie, 2012; Longbottom & Slaughter, 2018). In many cases, fear of saying the wrong thing leads to saying nothing at all – unintentionally conveying the message that death is too formidable for even adults to handle. In other cases, adults may underestimate children's curiosity and capacity to understand the concept of death. Overlooked in this assumption is that children will attempt to make sense of their experiences with whatever information is available following the death of a loved one. If death is not discussed by the adults around them, children may turn to media portrayals of death and dying – many of which are inaccurate and incomplete – to inform their own concepts of death (Longbottom & Slaughter, 2018).

Contrary to the intentions of those avoiding discussions of death with children or relying on euphemisms that blur the underlying concept, taking such an approach does children a disservice. When children receive inaccurate or incomplete information following the death of a loved one, their grieving process and subsequent coping can be hindered or even harmed (Auman, 2007). Instead, it is important to respond honestly, thoughtfully, and respectfully to children's questions and concerns about a death or impending death event. As Warnick (2015) explains, "Youth of all ages benefit from living in an environment where they feel safe asking their questions and sharing their feelings about…dying, death, and grief" (p. 58). To create such an environment, children's developing concepts of death and experiences of grief must be considered. Unique as the concepts and experiences surrounding death, dying, and grief are to each child, some similarities exist across developmental stages that can guide professionals in discussing death in sensitive, appropriate, and psychosocially productive ways.

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