How to explain death to your toddler?
It can be difficult to explain the death of a relative or loved one to a small child. Here's some tips on dealing with the topic.
My sister-in-law is in the final stages of a battle with cancer. She has been a loving aunt and until fairly recently helped with childcare. My four-year-old knows she is very poorly, but I don’t know how (or if) I should explain what’s happening, or what his reaction will be. Can you help?
It is always extremely difficult to explain to small children when someone is seriously ill or dies. At this age children don’t have the same understanding of death as adults – they have no real concept of what it means and don’t really grasp that it’s permanent. But they can become fascinated by it and ask many questions, often prompted by the death of a pet for example, as they try to explore what it means to die.
The way adults discuss this with them is very much based on their own values and beliefs. If you have a strong belief in an afterlife these ideas can be quite comforting for a child. It’s best to go at your son’s pace, answering questions as they come up rather than trying to sit him down for a big chat about it. You can also be reassuring that it is highly unlikely for small children like your son to become so ill and die. You can explain that some people even live to 100, but that sometimes people are too sick – like your sister-inlaw – so she won’t manage to do that.
It’s useful if you can manage to be very matter of fact when your son asks about death, as this will allow him to go on asking questions at his own pace, and get the answers he needs. Don’t be surprised if, because small children don’t feel the same grief as adults in these matters, he seems quite harsh and casual about it.