What does dead mean? How do people die?

Children need to be told the truth about a death in an age-appropriate way. They usually know when they are being lied to. So often lies create a secondary loss of trust of their emotional environment.

There are many ways people die. Often adults have difficulty in finding the precise words to use to explain a fatal illness, sudden accident, murder, suicide, or natural or man-made catastrophe. They are surprised when many girls and boys are satisfied with simple and honest responses appropriate to their developmental stage. Six-year-old Rebecca asked, How did Mommy die? She got very ill, might be just enough of a response.

Greg (5): a case study

Five-year-old Greg was sad. His pet gerbil, Jasper, had died. Jasper was lying in the cage very still. Greg started screaming and crying and Mom ran into the room to see what happened. Something is wrong with Jasper. He isnt moving. Im scared. Mom had a tear in her eye.

Jasper died, sweetie. Greg put his hands over his ears. No! No! That cant be true.

What does death mean?

Death means when the body stops working. Sometimes people die when they are very, very, very old, or very, very, very ill, or they are so, so, so injured that the doctors and nurses cant make their bodies work anymore. Jasper is dead. It is sad. He will not move, not be warm, and not be alive again.

What cant you do when your body doesnt work?

You cant eat, you cant play, you cant watch TV - you cant even breathe. Jasper has died. His body is getting cold. It stopped working and he cant even run in his cage.

But where does his body go?

Animals and people can be buried in the ground. When you are ready, we can find a box to bury Jasper in. We can put a soft blanket inside with Jaspers body and you can put in something special too.

Can I put in a picture of me? He would like that. Then he wont feel so alone. Lets put his toy in too.

That sounds like a great idea. We can decorate the box with things that remind you of Jasper.

Can we bury Jasper together?

Yes, it is nice to have a ceremony where everyone can do something. You could say a prayer, light a candle, send off a balloon, or plant a flower. It feels good to do something special after a death.

Alex (9)

My mom died of cancer. What does cancer mean?

Cancer is an illness that comes from very, very, tiny round parts in your body called cells. The cells are so small we cant see them without a microscope. Most cells are healthy and help your body live. Cancer cells are different. They dont look or grow like normal cells. Sometimes they grow so fast they crowd the good cells out, and they crowd together. This is called a tumor.

How did it make my mom die?

Your mom had a cancer tumor. All of the cancer cells kept growing and growing until the normal cells couldnt work anymore. The tumor got so big it made your moms body stop working.

Why do all the good people like my mom die young?

Thats a difficult question to answer. Your mom was too young to die. Children and adults wonder why such a good person like your mom got cancer. Sometimes we just dont know all the answers.

Kyle (11; brother killed in drive-by shooting)

My mom said my brother Tony died in an accident. A boy at school said he was murdered. How did Tony really die?

Tony was murdered. Another name for being murdered is killed. Killed is when someone chooses to make someone elses body stop working. A stranger killed Tony with a gun. This stranger was riding in a car and shot him when he was walking down the street.

Did they find the person that shot him?

The police are working very hard to find this person. You might hear more information from children at school, TV, or even the Internet. It is important you check out what you know with me or your parents, so that you know the facts about what happened and not believe rumors from friends, relatives, or the media.

I dont like to talk about the shooting. That worries my mom. Is it OK?

Sometimes it takes a while for children to react to a traumatic death. You might need time before you talk about it. Your parents may worry about you not showing a lot of emotion - like anger or sadness or even fear. You can explain to them you are just not ready to share your feelings with them and that when you are ready you will let them know. It is OK to ask for some time and space.

I keep imagining what happened. Its scary. Can I get shot?

Sometimes people die in very scary ways. It is hard when you keep imagining the killing and think that it could happen to you. If you make a drawing about how you think Tony died, it might help remove those difficult pictures in your mind by putting them on paper. Then you might be less afraid.

Thinking about your own safety is important. The police are working very hard to find the killer. You can help yourself feel safe by locking the doors to your house, knowing emergency numbers like 911 (USA) and 999 (UK), and walking with a friend or adult and not alone.

Tommy (8; dad died of suicide)

How did my dad die?

Tommy, it sounds like youre not sure how your dad died. Can you tell me what you think happened?

People say heart attack, stroke, drugs, or they just dont know. What really happened?

Your dad died of suicide. Suicide is when someone chooses to make his or her own body stop working. Your dad had been very, very sad for a long time. That is called depressed. He would sleep all day, or be angry and not know why, forget things, and get overwhelmed with his sad feelings. One day he took too many pills and it made his body stop working. He left Mom a note saying he didnt want to live anymore. Mom said he loved you a lot and he was proud of what a great football player you are.

Mary (12; dad died of suicide)

I cant even remember my dad. He died when I was 2. My mom says it was an accident. I didnt believe her anymore. Id heard so many stories I decided to look up the facts in the newspaper. It was suicide. How can I ever believe my mom again?

It is understandable you have lost trust in your emotional world. Your mom has hidden the truth from you for a long time. She was afraid you wouldnt understand about suicide and she couldnt find the words to explain it to a young child. Avoiding your questions as you grew up only made the lie bigger. Now you know the facts. He jumped off a bridge and witnesses watched it happen. He was very depressed because he had been out of work for a long time.

I feel better knowing the truth. Now everything makes sense. Is it wrong to be so angry with my mom?

No, it makes a lot of sense. It is so difficult to discover someone you love has been lying to you, even if they had the best of intentions. It makes you wonder if you can ever trust them again. Some children feel it is more painful to be lied to during childhood than to learn the truth about the way their parent died, even if the truth is hard to handle. Maybe you can talk to Mom about your anger.

Concluding thought

Telling children the truth in age-appropriate ways is helpful in securing their trust. In order to communicate we need clear and simple language for dialogues. Sometimes children hear different stories about what happened to their person from friends, relatives, or even the news. They want to find out the real answer. Preparing answers and dialogues using definitions of death and of specific ways people die can encourage open communication and maintain a level of honesty for the grieving child.

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