Talking to your child about death can be difficult. But death is an inescapable part of life, and healthy communication around the topic can make a big difference in a child’s ability to cope when faced with the reality of it.

Though you may be tempted to wait until your child experiences the death of a loved one to discuss the topic, less emotional times are good opportunities for instilling the basic understanding your child will need later. Death or loss should be discussed openly. When children have no preparation, they often respond with excessive fear, anger or confusion.

Before broaching the subject with your child, however, it’s important to understand your own views on the matter. Acknowledging your own beliefs about death will help you talk more openly and honestly with your child and make it easier to adjust the amount of information to her maturity level.

Too often, adults underestimate children’s need for and ability to process information. Most children at age three or four are ready to begin learning about death, and parents can use fairy tales, the death of a family pet or even a dead insect to initiate a discussion. At that stage, you can discuss death generally and provide more information as your child’s follow-up questions and increasing maturity dictate.

As a general guideline, preschoolers tend to view death as temporary and reversible. They need simple but clear and specific information about what it means to be dead. Keep religious explanations simple, too, and avoid euphemisms. Children this age take literally what adults say. If you tell them a deceased person simply went “to sleep” or “went away,” they may think the same will happen to them when they go to bed or to you when you go to work.

School-aged children, on the other hand, are likely to ask questions that are scientific in nature and are better equipped to understand religious concepts about life after death. Be aware, however, they may fear that death is contagious in some way.

Whatever your child’s age and whatever the nature of the discussion, it’s important for parents to accept that being honest is more important than having all the answers. Admitting you simply don’t know the answer to a question can be a great way to let your child know it’s OK for her not to know either.

As published in May 2004 Edition of the La Crosse Tribune.