Ask Dr. Julia - What is Death?

Written by: Julia Rahn

We are thrilled to introduce Dr. Julia Rahn, child psychologist and founder of Flourish Studios to our NPN Blog community.  As our children grow up, they come to us with anxieties, fears, and endless questions.  Some are easy to solve with a kiss and a hug, while others leave us stumbling over our own words.  Our "Ask Dr. Julia" blogs will give parents the tools and tips to navigate the bumpier waters.  With that said, lets jump in with a really tough one.

What Is Death?  One of several questions a parent doesn’t want to have to tackle.

Children are inquisitive.  Their minds never stop. It makes sense that they would ask about the unknown.  What are ghosts?  Why is there a cemetery?  Mom, you said grandma died, so where is she?  But what do you say?  You don’t want to overwhelm your child with too much information, but how much is too much? 

Here are three ideas that will help make talking about death and dying a peaceful, no stress experience for both you and your child:

1) You affect your child’s reality:  Your child asks you questions when the world doesn’t make sense or there is a big unknown.  You can help your child develop a stable perception of the world and self by confirming the reality, not denying it.  When answering your child’s question about death and dying, think first about your child – age, experiences, development.  For example, is she feeling separation anxiety?  If so, this would not be the time to talk about death as an ending.  Explain that it is the natural cycle of life or where you believe someone goes when they die. 

2) Remember that it’s OK to not have all the answers:  You could say you’re not sure exactly what happens when someone dies but you believe…(you get to fill in the blank with your personal, cultural or religious beliefs).   

3) Find out why the question has come up:  When your child asks, “Why did Grandpa die?” this might be an expression of how much he is missing his grandfather.  Instead of talking about what it means to die, share how much you both miss your deceased loved one.  Comfort, not information, might be what your child wants.  A child’s specific question often falls by the wayside as you talk about the thoughts and feelings behind the question.  How do you determine if it’s a plea for information or comfort?  Answer a question with a question:      

  • How come you are interested in talking about death today?
  • What brought that question to your mind?
  • Why do you think Aunt Jane died? 

As your child ages, it’s important to check in with his current understanding of death and dying.  And, it’s just as important to check in with your own feelings and attitudes about death.  Your child picks up on any fears or other unresolved emotions no matter how hard you try to hide or deny them.  You are the key – how you talk about and share your experiences and feelings about death and dying determines how your child understands death.

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Here is a list of children’s books that may help you explain death and dying to your child.  Be sure to read a book alone before reading it with your child to make sure it will address your child’s needs.  (NOTE: These books are available at Flourish Studios® and online at www.icanflourish.com.) 

  • The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by B. Mellonie and R. Ingpen.
  • The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by L. Buscaglia
  • The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
  • The Next Place by Warren Hanson
  • Tear Soup by Pat Schweibert

Stop by Flourish Studios to learn more about Dr. Julia and to check out all it has to offer Chicago families!  Do you have other tough questions for Dr. Julia?  Please email them to hi@npnparents.org.

Posted on October 26, 2011 at 10:24 PM