How to Explain Death to a 7-Year-Old


Death can be a traumatic experience, especially for a 7-year-old. I wanted to know how to explain this difficult concept to a 7 time-old. I did some research and here is what I found out.

So, how do you explain death to a 7 year-old? It’s imperative that you be honest and forthcoming with terms like, “death” or “died”. Euphemisms like, “gone to live in heaven” can be difficult for a child to comprehend and will hinder convalescence.

Above all be patient and understanding with the child. 7 year-olds take time to come to terms when a death occurs. They deal with stress in a different way than adults.

Explaining Death to a 7-Year-Old

Death affects all of us. We have a natural instinct to protect those we love, especially children, from the unpleasant realities of the world around us. In an effort to protect, we often hinder the growth and understanding of those that we intend to shield.

Before we discuss how to approach death with a child, it is important that we understand the mentality of a 7-year-old. Understanding the thought process of another is critical if we are going to help them understand something as abstract as death.

The Mentality of a 7 Year-Old

Children under nine years of age have a difficult time comprehending the permanence of death. In cartoons and other forms of media to which a child is frequently exposed, death is very fluid and never forever.

Realizing this helps us understand the need of explaining the permanence of death to our children. When someone is gone, they won’t be coming back.

To cope with death, children may become fixated on the subject, recreating the experience through pictures or toys. It may be tempting to try and distract your child with other, happier activities, but it is best to let a child adjust in their own way.

Remember all children are different. It is not uncommon for a child to show no interest in the death of a grandparent and yet be devastated over the passing of the family pet.

Children also grieve in different ways. Be on the lookout for signs of grieving from your child to see how you can help them.

Now that we understand a little better how a child thinks, let’s examine some of the do’s and don’t’s of explaining death.

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Explaining Death

Let’s start with the don’ts.

Don’ts

Don’t Avoid the Subject

A good parent or guardian wants nothing more than the happiness of their child. It may be tempting to shield your child from the difficult ordeal of death. As the though process goes, out of sight, out of mind.

Adults feel that if they can avoid discussing the topic with their child, then they may be able to avoid causing any grief to their child at all.

While the motivation behind this line of thinking is noble, the practice may actually cause great harm to your child. 7 -year-olds are great observers. If they see something in their parent’s demeanor or tone that conveys distress of depression they will often be too scared to ask about it.

Even if you “put on a good face” around your children, they will see right through it. Don’t be afraid to share your grief with your children. If children don’t understand why their parents are stressed, they will worry more about their own emotions.

Don’t Be Afraid of Not Having All the Answers

We often don’t wish to discuss these problems with our children because we don’t have all of the answers. We fear hearing the questions, “why did this happen?” or, “what does it feel like to die?” because we ourselves don’t know.

Don’t be afraid when answering hard questions truthfully. You may be surprised at the love you can feel with your child when you have an open discussion on a difficult conversation such as this.

Don’t Use Euphemisms

Do not use euphemisms when talking about death. It seems easier to say that “grandma went to live with the angels” than talking about death directly, but these terms can actually be very scary and confusing to a child.

I read a story where a loving mother, in an attempt to protect the emotions of her 7-year-old son, said that “God took sister away to live with him.” Instead of comforting him, the son developed a deep seeded resentment for God and a constant fear that God would take him away too.

If you haven’t raised your child in a religious home, avoid using religious terms. Talking about God, heaven, and angels to a child not familiar with this terminology is confusing and frightening.

Death is hard even for adults to cope with. In these difficult times, it is tempting to try and save your child from grief. Resist the urge to avoid discussion with your child and talk with him openly and freely.

Now, let’s talk about the Do’s.

Do’s

Prepare Your Child

While your children are young, look for opportunities to teach them about death. I know that this can seem morbid, but there are appropriate ways to go about it.

I read about the experiences a mother had of explaining death to her 3-year-old son. She took him to one of her dead houseplants and explained that it wouldn’t grow anymore. No longer would it take sunlight or water. She also stressed the permanency of death.

Whether you are aware of it or not, your child has already been exposed to death quite a bit. Through the shows they watch, the stories they read, death is ever prevalant in society.

Use opportunities where death is shown to your advantage. If you see a dead bird by the side of your house. Talk to your kid about it. If your neighbor’s dog dies, this could be an opportunity to discuss death. Even in movies like Disney’s Up where a death occurs could be a good opportunity to talk about it.

The point is to prepare your child for when a death hits close to home. It is much easier to talk about it now than in the future.

Stick to a Normal Routine

To help your child cope with death, help them stick to as close to a normal routine as possible. One of the sad realities of life is that even when something as tragic as the death of a loved one occurs, the world keeps on spinning.

Children can benefit immensely from some normality during traumatic circumstances. If your 7-year-old is able, send them to school, help them attend their baseball games, even if you need to get a neighbor to drive them.

Now, I’m not advocating that you pretend as if nothing happened and that you send your child out like everything is hunky dory. That is irresponsible. If your 7-year-old needs to take a few days off to come to terms with the death, that is perfectly okay.

However, it is important that you try to ease back into your normal routine as quickly as possible. Familiarity in life can be very comforting in trying time.

The activity will also help your child focus on other things and feel better quicker.

Reassure Your Child the Death is Not Their Fault

Children feel that the world revolves around themselves. Lacking life experience and knowledge on how the world works, children will often blame themselves for a death in the family.

This line of thinking is terribly misguided and can be detrimental to your child.

Explain that death is a natural thing, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. Especially in cases of an accident or disease. Plainly state that “there was nothing anyone could do about it, and we can’t bring grandma back.”

You can alleviate the guilt your child may feel through open discussion and loving assurance.

Approaching the Funeral

A lot of parents wonder if their young child should be allowed at the funeral. Would that be too traumatic for a child? Would they be able to behave themselves?

The answer is simple. Talk to your child and explain what the funeral is and what people do at funerals. Tell them how long it is, and that they would be expected to behave the entire time that they are there.

If your child expresses interest in going then they should be allowed to go. 7 year-old children are old enough to sit still for extended periods of time and will do fine at a funeral. 

It isn’t a bad idea to bring a sitter or be willing to leave for a bit if your child gets too fussy.

If you attend the viewing with your child, explain that the person sleeping, they are dead. Seeing the body lying there, looking normal can be confusing for a child.

Consoling a Grieving Child

When a tragedy strikes close to home, children will be upset. Children don’t think the same way as adults, so it can be hard to understand what they need in order to feel better. 

Here we will discuss how you can relate to a 7-year-old and help comfort them.

Answer Questions

Children are naturally curious and will have a lot of questions about death. Do not shun these questions when they come. Be an adult and engage your child. They may feel nervous approaching you about the subject.

Help your child know that there are no questions that aren’t acceptable to ask. You can help create an open environment by answering questions truthfully, even the hard ones.

Never snap at your child when she asks a question. They won’t feel comfortable talking to you about it and will bottle up their emotions instead.

Be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again. When this happens, a child isn’t looking for any deeper meaning in your responses. They are just looking for reassurance that what you said actually happened. It is a way they understand the abstract concept of death.

7-Year-Olds Need Choices

Just like any adult, a child feels valued and important when they have a few options to choose from. Let a child choose how they will participate in the memorial for a loved one for example.

If grandma dies, do they want to say a few words at the funeral? Or would they rather draw a picture and have it displayed somewhere? Do they want to participate at all? 

Do they want to hang pictures of a deceases loved one at home? Or is the constant reminder too much for the child. Even simple choices like what flowers are used at the service, or what casket the loved one is buried in can help a child feel important.

If you have more than one child, don’t assume that what one child wants is what the other kid wants. Give all the children in your family choices.

Talk About the Person Who Died

The worst thing to do when someone dies is make talking about them taboo. I know it can be really difficult talking about someone after they are gone, but it is unhealthy to let all of those emotions bottle up inside them. 

By sharing a memory about that person you can break down taboos and help your child share their feelings about what went down. Something as simple as “your mom was a beautiful singer,” or “This was Dad’s favorite movie,” can be helpful in starting a discussion.

A lot of kids also like having keepsakes to help remember the person that passed away. Mom’s old hairbrush or Dad’s fishing pole can help children keep the memory of the deceased alive.

When discussing death, recognize that every person copes in their own way. Some children may be more open to talking; others will not. It’s your job as a parent to create a safe environment where children can discuss if they want to.

Understand that Children Grieve in Different Ways

Some 7 year-olds will ask a lot of questions, others will prefer to be alone. All people react differently to difficult situations like this and we need to respect that.

I feel the best way to handle this is to ask a child if they want to talk. It is always best to be the adult and initiate the conversation. If a child doesn’t want to talk, respect that, but don’t drop the issue either.

Constantly assure your 7-year-old that you are always available to talk if they need to.

Listen

More important than talking is listening. Often when we listen we look for ways to “fix” the problem. Problems as complex and stinging as death cannot be fixed. Children need time to heal, and even then they will never completely get over it.

Don’t try to be the handyman of your kid’s emotional needs. And please don’t give terrible advice like, “get over it”. What a terrible thing to say to someone who came to you for words of kindness.

Loving listen to your child and empathize with them. Young children often respond well with physical touch. A hug can say things that words sometimes fail to communicate. Remember that all children are different though.

What works for one kid may not work for another.

Be Happy

It is okay to take a break from grieving. It is not disrespectful to the memory of the person to laugh or be humorous. Children especially can become exhausted if they aren’t allowed a break from grieving.

Seven-year-olds may be more inclined to play and distract themselves in the immediate aftermath of a death than adults. This is normal. Give your child time to grieve and let them do it in their own time.

It’s not a sin to smile and be happy, even if someone passed away.

Tell Your 7-Year-Old what to Expect

If big life changes are imminent as a result from the death, explain that to your child. The unknown is frightening and children especially need a heads up.

Tell a child that their aunt will now pick them up from school, like grandma used to do. Or that grandma will live at our house now that grandpa died. 

If you tell a child what big changes are coming sooner rather than later, they will be able to cope easier when the changes happen.

Conclusion

There is no such thing as perfect parents. You will not know exactly how to explain death to your 7-year-old, and that’s fine.

At all times be open and loving. Be honest if you don’t know the answer to all the questions your 7-year-old child has.

If you are patient and honest you will be able to help your child through these difficult times.

Additional Questions

For how long does a child grieve? Like adults, children have no timetable when it comes to grieving. A child may seem back to normal within a few months, or they may seem different for their entire lives.

People are different and we need to be accommodating to their differences. Just because you handle something one way, doesn’t mean it will work for everybody else.

Do babies grieve? Grief isn’t exclusive to any age group and even infants grieve. Grief is manifest in infants through loss of appetite, possible weight loss, and irritability.

But every person is different. One infant will behave differently after a traumatic experience than another.

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