How to Tell Your 6 Year Old About Death

Updated on September 06, 2009
J.M. asks from New Braunfels, TX
17 answers

One of my daughters friends in her class lost her father. They are in first grade and 6 years old. Any tips on what to tell my daughter? So far I have just told her to really play and be with her friend that her family is having a tough time. I am going to the funeral home and we bought her a stuffed animal that my daughter picked out. Was wondering if i should take my daughter. I think her friend would enjoy seeing her. Thanks in advance for your advice.

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So What Happened?

I took my daughter to the funeral home viewing which was a closed casket. She took a stuffed animal to her friend and they played together for a little bit and everyone giggled with them. I think it was a good experience. I told her at dinner that her friend's dad had been riding a motorcycle and was hit by another car and asked her what she thought happened. She said he died. On the way there I told her what to expect and she had great answers herself. For instance when I talked about people being sad, espiecially the grandma (who my daughter sees at teh school all the time) because that was her son...she said - but she is always smiling. I said, that's just the kind of person she is. I decided to go with the theory that death is part of life and explain it to her. She had already been asking questions about cemeteries and asking of all things...is that where people get grounded??? So I spend a lot of time explaining buried not grounded. Thanks for all the advice. I also explained our spiritual beliefs about heaven...thanks again!

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S.O.

answers from San Antonio on

Death is a part of life. If dealt with matter-of-factly, kids will deal with it better. If ignored, or sheltered too much, kids will have even more fears and questions that aren't being addressed calmly. The panic will begin and increase. Deal with it matter-of-factly and honestly. Death is sad, yes, but death happens to all and life goes on.

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L.A.

answers from Austin on

In our family we have a saying, "Always go to the funeral". It shows the greatest respect, caring and support for the grieving family. Funerals are part of living... The highest honor you can give someone and their memory is attending the funeral. It takes effort, emotion and a bit of yourself to be their for those in grief. Children can handle this. It is just like attending any other ceremony we attend as a society. We explain what will be happening, what we may see and what behaviors are expected.

My husband had never attended a funeral until he attended my grandfathers funeral. My husband was 21. His family did not think it was something children should attend.
He was so freaked out by it. And yet my family views, funerals like family reunions. The kids attend and understand that this is just part of our lives. They do may get upset but we are all their to show them that it is going to be ok. They see the adults mourn, they see the person praised and blessed and then they see them buried. Then they see that we all survive and go on with life.

There are great books that explain death to children without frightening them. Here are a few titles. "Nana upstairs and Nan downstairs", "Sad isn't bad", "Gentle Willow". I think adults are more worried about upsetting them than they will really be.

I would ask your child if she would like to attend. If she only met this child this school year, she may not really want to attend. If she was friends with her last year or longer, she may want to go for her friend. Do not underestimate children.

When my daughter was in daycare, one of the moms was killed in a tragic accident. We explained to our own children what had happened. I then told my daughter that her classmate was very sad. Then I just let my daughter ask us any questions. My daughter wanted to know "where was he going to live?" I told her "with his grandparents." She said "what will happen if they die." I told her "he could come live with us." Then after a long pause she said "how will he go to the HEB and buy food?" I told her "his grandparents will take him." She said "what if they cannot take him." I told her "we would take him." She said "that sounds like a good plan". She was 4.

We did not attend the funeral because it was held out of town. But my daughter wanted to attend and asked if she would get to go. Instead we sent some cookies that my daughter wanted to send. (she knew about the "party" that would be held after wards). Short honest answers are always best. Do not make it a big Scary secret.

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S.A.

answers from Houston on

J.,

It seems that you have gotten a lot of conflicting advice, so I thought I would throw in my 2 cents.

When I was a child, there were a lot of deaths in my family (Great Grandmother, Grandfather, Great Aunt, Father, and an Uncle before I was 10 years old). I did not go to the funeral for my Grandfather (I was about 5) but I remember the event afterwards at my Grandparents house - what I remember was that I was LEFT ALONE with my Grandparents neighbor to set up for the party and everyone else went away and then came to eat and be together. Even though I knew the neighbor very well and loved playing at her house at other times, I felt left out and alone. From then on, I went to the family funerals and recall those as great joyous/sad times of our family being together. I remember visiting with my older cousins and us talking about the funeral and the person who died - hugging each other and chasing each other in the parking lot. I know that if my first funeral experience would have been when my Father died when I was 10, it would have been VERY traumatic but since I had been to other funerals, I wasn't scared about that part - even though I was sad that my Father was gone.

Secondly, I have worked at a Hospice care facility and it seems that children who were exposed to their dying relative and included in the family grieving process really heal more quickly than those who were "protected". Children understand far more about death and accept it in ways that adults do not. Your daughter will have questions if you attend the funeral or not - it is best to be honest but not to overload her with information... let her take the lead in what she needs to know. If the Father died in a car accident - explain that and don't just say "accident".... to a 6 year old, the word "accident" means that he used the bathroom in his pants and that would really scare her to think that you can die because of going to the bathroom in your pants. Also please avoid "He was such a good man that God needed him as an Angel..." First of all, that makes children NOT want to be good and it makes them frightened of a God who "takes Father's away". Be honest and say "sometimes we don't know why people die".

It is also a part of natural development that children around the age of 6-7 start thinking about death and asking questions about parents dying or them dying, etc. Realize that this may start now given this death experience. Again, this will happen even is she doesn't attend the funeral.

The movie "My Girl" (oldie but goodie in my opinion) is a good way to get her talking or asking questions. Also look into some books that have been suggested.

Wishing you well and keeping you and the family that has lost the Father in my prayers.
blessings,
Stacy

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J.E.

answers from Killeen on

We have always lightly touched the subject of death with my son (currently 5) because my mother passed away the same year he was born and he has always asked about my mom and where she was. He has seen pictures, we talk aobut her, and he knows she is in Heaven. Yet in the past year, Granny (my grandmother) passed away, and just this past week his Nana (my husband mother) passed as well. I think it is very important to be open with your kids about death at an early age. Especially when they can experience for the 1st time when it is indirectly affecting them. It allows them a chance to understand and ask questions without all the emotions that come with losing someone they are so close to. I allowed my son to go to the funeral home with me with the death of my grandmother but steered him away from view of the body. My son did incredibly well. He asked alot of questions. He particularly asked ones in reference to us (his dad and I) dying as well as himself. So, don't go into it blindly and be prepared. But for my son, I am very glad I allowed him to experience it and prepare him, so that just last week when Nana died... he understood. I think the best approach to take is slow and light. She will view things like this with the same comfort and ease that you do. Talk with her, allow her to ask questions, but keep everything light and soft and allow her to be distracted and change the subject if she wants. When she is curious again... trust me she will bring the subject up. It is like anything with children (food, rules, even education) introduce the subject, be brief, drop it, and repeat when the time is right. It will create an ability to accept it easier and more successfully each time. Plus, what a great opportunity to instill your moral and faith into her! But to answer your question I would allow my child to go. Not only does it teach her a concept of life/death that she inevitable will face many times in her life, but it also teaches her to be a good and supportive friend.

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L.W.

answers from Austin on

Did your 6 year old know and have a relationship with the dad? That's our litmus for whether to have a young child go to the funeral. It's ok to bring your daughter by to bring her animal to her friend after the funeral as well, as a way of showing that she cares.

We took all of our children to an elderly neighbor's funeral...they used to run down to say "hi!" all the time, and my son used to ask if our neighbor could come out and play. They'd make little wooden cars in his garage. Our neighbor used to ride his bike and wear a straw hat with a big sunflower stuck in the brim. It helped to talk about memories before the funeral, and remind the kids that they were going to the funeral to be a comfort to others (not to show everyone how sad they were...though its o.k. to be sad) and that acting wacky is not appropriate and won't make people happy (I've got some live wire kids sometimes)

They were well behaved and I think did add comfort to others.

I was a pastor's daughter, and ended up going to quite a few funerals, even for folks I didn't know.

Don't be afraid to take her, but you know better how she'd handle the funeral from knowing her personality.

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T.S.

answers from Killeen on

My mother in law and her mother died within a years time when my daughter was 5. With both we explained to her that they had joined others in heaven. I let her know that Daddy and Grandfather would need extra hugs, for your daughter letting her know that her friend might need some extra hugs as she will miss her father. Letting her know that her that her friend's dad is home with God is so important. Reading passages about Jesus' resurrection are helpful at this time.
We did not take my daughter to the funerals as we wanted her to be able to focus on the glory of them joining the Lord in heaven. We were concerned that the tears and sorrow at the funeral would cause her to be upset. With her great grandmother she was with me when I broke down which did upset her. My mom and I explained to her that I was sad because I was thinking about her much I would miss her.
As for details about the worldly significance of his death, you probably want to let her ask the questions. She may or may not have many. If you do have a hard time answering questions you can call someone at the funeral home for guidance if you don't have a pastor to turn to.
My prayers are with your family and this little girl's family.

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J.B.

answers from Houston on

I think I would just answer her questions as they come and be honest. I would probably let her lead because she may not want as much information as we have to give. So if she asks what it means to die I would just tell her something like the previous poster said, his body stopped working and he went to heaven. I think not taking her to funeral might be a good thing. I went to a funeral when I was nine and it was really traumatic. A friend of mine had died and her little brother practically drug me up to the casket, it was really hard on me. Of course I am fine today, no lasting trauma or anything:) If you do take her I would just keep a close eye on her and let her tell you if she becomes uncomfortable and if so you may have to leave. Sorry for the family who lost their dad/husband. Hang in there.

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K.N.

answers from Austin on

Ultimately it depends on your religious views as to whether you explain death in terms of 'going to heaven' or 'living with God', etc.

We do not practice a prescribed religion ourselves. Honestly, it always makes me a touch uncomfortable when people explain death in terms of a parallel universe ("living in heaven"). I would keep the explanation simple, "He got too sick/injured and his body couldn't heal the boo-boos inside... His body/heart stopped working... His family is having a funeral to tell his body once more how much they love him and how much they will miss him... Do you want to go to the funeral to say bye-bye too?" (If she says no, then don't take her. period.)

I previously found articles online about how to explain death to young children. You can probably google it to get the tips. Two aspects I remember were:

1.) Current advice says not to convey the idea that the dead person 'went to sleep' or 'is sleeping'. This can cause the child to develop anxiety about dying when she goes to sleep or fear being mistaken for dead when they are sleeping, etc.

2.) You should anticipate a certain level of anxiety from her in regard to her fears/realization that you (mommy or daddy) could die/leave her. So constantly remind her over the next couple months that you are healthy... Mommy/daddy aren't leaving you, etc. (if you think she might not react to this realization well, then you might want to avoid going to the funeral. Attending the funeral will definitely make death more concrete in her mind/recollection.)

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N.S.

answers from Houston on

It would probably be okay to take your daughter - if nothing else - as a distraction for her friend.

We lost my Grandfather - my daughters Great-Grandfather - a few few years ago. Our daughter participated in the preparation of the memorial service as well as attending the funeral and burial. She processed it in her own way - even drew a picture of my Grandfather in the casket with an angel above him waiting to take him to heaven.

Kids are pretty resiliant - we usually do not give them enough credit - but they have a way of processing the information as long as it is delivered in a positive way.

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J.T.

answers from Victoria on

also let her know why death occurs so she wont worry that one of you might die. let her know that her friend might not seem like she wants her there or she might be really happy she is there either way (if you take her ) let her know that she is there to support her friend and be there incase her friend does need her. so sorry about there loss. there have been other posts recomending books about death. library might have suggestions.

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A.O.

answers from Sherman on

I think you should be very honest about it. Tell her that her friend's dad died, his body stopped working. If you are a believer, tell her that he went to be with Jesus. I would suggest not taking her to the funeral, especially if there is a chance it would be open casket. She might be frightened by the sight and have nightmares. (speaking from personal experince as a young child) However, take her to see her friend frequently, her friend will need the distraction and company.

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T.D.

answers from Houston on

My father passed away when I was 7 and in first grade also.I think you can be honest with your daughter and let her know that this child's father was sick or had an accident or whatever the situation was. Make sure she realizes that dying is part of life even though it is very painful. Let her be as involved as she is comfortable with. I think the stuffed animal is a great idea and it will help her to know she is there for her friend. I think you have the right approach letting her know that her friend needs her right now and that she is going through a very difficult time. Kids are very perceptive and how this is handled will stay with her for the rest of her life. Good luck with everything.

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S.B.

answers from Corpus Christi on

I heard of a good way to tell a small child about . You can put a hand in a glove and tell the child that this is like when you are alive. When you take your hand out of the glove the glove just lays there but the hand is still fine. If you are a christian then you know that you will go on to heaven and that these old bodies are traded in for something better. It is good for the kids to learn that for Christians is actually a good thing. It is only sad for us living because we are lonely for the ones who have already died.

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C.C.

answers from Austin on

There is a good childrens book called "ghost wings " maybe you could buy it for your daughter to give as gift for her friend . Her parrents would probably have to read it to her. Buy you could also read it to your daughter and talk with her about it.

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L.S.

answers from Killeen on

Tell them they are gone to heaven.

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L.B.

answers from Corpus Christi on

NO do not take your child to the funeral home, she will see both the children if they are there and adults crying and become upset also. This is not a memory that you want her to have. Let her know that he is will God and his grandparents,etc that have gone to heaven and talking with them there.He will be able to see his family from heaven.

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C.W.

answers from Waco on

Hello J.
What a horrible thing for a young child to have to endure. Age 6 is a really young age to have to experience death, especially that of a parent.
Most think age 6 is too young to expose children to the trauma and emotion of the funeral experience and I agree. However, if your daughter is very mature and is not bothered by emotions of others it may be ok. Just to support her friend.- but I never let my children attend funerals at that age.
My explanation to them in a way they could understand death was that "a special angel" came for that person and now that person was with Jesus-....
It is important that your child spend as much time as she can with her friend playing etc......just her friendship will show support and help her with the grieving process. The little stuffed animal is a nice gesture...maybe she should let her have it before the funeral and not at the funeral.
good luck and blessings

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