When I was about six or seven years old, my uncle died. A few months later, his wife and daughter also died. All I knew was that they were there one minute and gone the next. No one talked about it with me or the other kids in the family about what death was. When I was fourteen my grandma died. This time round, there was no hiding or sheltering us from it. I was sad and cried a lot but even then I don’t think I really knew what death was. I had never been talked to about people dying in the real sense. All I had was the basic knowledge tied to religion about one day going to heaven or hell.

A few weeks ago my neighbor’s father passed away. With the usual loud traditional mourning where people cry outside the home, I got a chance to look at how the family was dealing with the death. The adults were going through the whole process well enough, a few moments of shedding tears then laughing about something the deceased did. But the kids were scared and confused. They didn’t really get what was going on and no one was talking to them about it. I talked to one of them and to her it was just a bunch of grownups crying because grandpa was gone. She didn’t get it, to her if he was just on a trip he would be back. She didn’t get that his going was permanent. This got me thinking about kids and death. How you talk to them about it and when to do it.

Losing a loved one is never easy. It’s something everyone handles it in their own unique way. Dealing with your own grief is hard enough; add onto it your child’s grief, questions and confusion and it becomes something tricky. How you handle the questions asked while not scaring your child is something you have to bear in mind.

Children’s understanding of death varies depending on their age, life experiences and personality. Their view on life is very liter. When talking to them about death, be as straight forward as possible. Tell them how someone died. If it was an accident, explain how it happened rather than hide it from them. If the cause of death was a heart attack, tell them how sometimes the body stops working and when it does, the person is dead. Don’t use words like “they are gone” or “they went to a better place”. This implies the person might come back sometime in the future. Help the child understand in the real sense that death is permanent and not something someone can come from.

When teaching your child about death, always remember there is no right or wrong way for them to feel. Let your child express their emotions as they see fit. Suppressing it or telling them to be happy or sad only confuses them. If their first instinct is to be confused, work with that and answer any questions that will explain to them what death is. Let your child express their own emotions ad thoughts on the matter rather than tell them how to feel.

Do not shelter your child from your grief. You may not want them to see you sad or in tears. But allowing them to watch you grieve and go through the motions will help a child understand their feelings better. It will help them know its ok to feel sad or angry that someone they love is gone and that it’s nothing to feel ashamed of. Hiding your grief will give them the idea that mourning is private and they should bottle up what they feel. Make it easy for them to talk about death without fear.

Answer any questions your child may have about death and help them understand the different cultural beliefs and practices around it. Let them know why someone is buried in a certain way. Do not brush aside their questions or make them seem insignificant.

It’s never easy talking about death. Children will always be curious and your response will set the trend of how they handle death in future. There is no right way or set time when you should discuss it with them. Someone they love will die, and when it happens, you have to be prepared to deal with their fear and questions. Talk to them and show them that death is a part of life and help them understand what it means and how to deal with it.