The death of a loved one is always a difficult pain for adults to bear, but for children, it can be even worse. And trying to find an explanation for why a friend, relative or pet no longer is around can be very tough for parents.

Advice available online includes explaining death in literal terms, as young children tend to see the world in black and white, and to avoid euphemisms such as “he's gone to sleep,” or “he's gone away.” Explaining that the person's body “stopped working” or that he died because he was very old seem to be the most appropriate strategies. If the person was ill, it's best to emphasize that he or she no longer is in pain.

In religious households, the family's shared faith often can be a great benefit to children, but in homes that aren't particularly religious, suddenly introducing religious concepts can have a frightening effect on kids. Telling a child that a loved one has gone to live with Jesus, or is with God now, can lead to the child asking why the dead person wants to be with Jesus or God more than his family. Saying that the death was “God's will” can be very scary, as children might wonder when God will come for them. Even telling them that the person is in heaven and is happy can send mixed messages, the “happiness” of the deceased contrasting with the grief of the living. In contrast, one parent on a “mothering” message board told her children that we're only in this life for a short time, but after we die, we live forever and one day we'll see the deceased again, a post that garnered many positive responses.

Is there an easy way to tackle the job of explaining death to a child? Should it be done before the death of a relative or pet?

Explaining the process of illness, dying, and the death of a loved one such as a grandparent or a beloved pet to a young child is a tender and difficult moment.

Depending upon the age of a child, I have used the example of the caterpillar's life cycle. The message is that life never really dies, it just changes form. At one moment in the caterpillar's life, it is in a cocoon and with a little time, it emerges into the beautiful new form of the butterfly and is able to fly away on the breeze with brightly colored wings.

The death of a sibling or grandparent can be a teachable moment about spiritual life. Usually, children over the age of seven can understand the concept that life continues, even when our physical body gets sick, ages and dies.

I have also explained in memorial services that the body is like a coat that we wear. In time, the coat gets worn out and we choose to take it off and leave it on the bed. Our spiritual body looks very much like our physical body, but it doesn't need a coat anymore. It is a body of light.

The main thing to remember when discussing death with children is to be calm and explain that just like birth, death is a normal process of our experience as human beings, but that there is so much more to us than our physical bodies. We are spiritual beings and when we go into the light (or heaven), we will see other family members, friends and pets who have gone on ahead of us. It will be like a big family reunion.

Rev. Jeri Linn

Unity Church of the Valley

La Crescenta

Every child is different and every family situation is different. As a general rule, we should prepare children for life with a pattern of truthful explanations of the world. One necessary life skill for young people to learn is the acceptance of the role of death in the world.

Explaining death can be a positive opportunity for adults who are teaching children when they are ready for this life skill.

Learning about death is a difficult lesson. Adults should take steps to make the experience as smooth as possible. For example, preparation through noting other examples of death in nature might be helpful. Most people learn better if given an action as part of their learning. Children should be given assignments like watering a plant or writing a poem to honor the deceased.

The death of loved ones or acquaintances is always a challenge, and that is the way it should be. When we tell people about death, the child or adult should accept it as an important event and experience complex emotions and thoughts. We can best serve young people by being honest and expressing the truth in as gentle and loving a way as possible.

Steven Gibson

South Pasadena Atheist Meetup