Talking to Children About Death: The danger of euphemism

You all know what a ‘euphemism’ is, right?  It’s a benign or innocuous word used in place of one that is kind of icky because we think it’s less harsh or offensive.  Grown ups love them and, no surprise here, there are apparently over 200 euphemisms related to death and dying.  We’ve all used and abused phrases like ‘passed away’ and ‘in a better place’ in order to tip toe around the dreaded ‘death’ words; it’s okay, the sooner we admit it the better.  And really, there are many people who prefer euphemism to more unpleasant words so I can’t tell you to never use them EXCEPT…except, except, except….when talking to children about death.   Please, allow me and my co-hosts to explain.

You see, children are already kind of confused about death.  Case in point, I asked Virginia what happens when you die…

Hmmm….any other guesses?

Is anyone else concerned she might be describing an autopsy?  When did she start watching CSI?

Okay anyway, kids are already pretty confused about most aspects of death and dying.  Depending on their age, they may not understand its finality, they may not understand how it happens, and they may not understand who it happens to.  Many children believe death is something that happens to others, not them or their loved ones, and death is something that only happens to the very old.

When faced with death, or even when curious about it, it’s up to adults in a child’s life to explain things in a way that is clear and honest.  Up until a certain age kids are very concrete thinkers and I know being straightforward seems callous and potentially damaging, especially because we want to protect the young, but in reality we must be straightforward with them.  If we aren’t, we run the risk of leaving them confused.

In order to illustrate this, I have addressed some of the most common euphemisms with two children whom I believe have had much more straight-talk about death than the average child (because I’m griefy, what?).  If they’re generally confused, you can bet your bottom dollar most children will be as well.

Passed Away”

This seems to be the most common substitute for the word ‘died’.  It’s so common, I admittedly use it all the time and most adults understand its meaning.  Children, on the other hand, usually won’t.  My children actually did so they’ve outsmarted me this time.

“She’s in a better place”

For grown ups this usually means the individual is in heaven or some form of afterlife.  To kids this means they went somewhere really cool.  Even children who understand the concept of heaven and afterlife might not  imagine any place better than here on earth with their family, friends, and toys.

“He’s just sleeping” or “He went to sleep forever”

Don’t tell a child a dead person is just sleeping.  Why?  Because children sleep…every night…and they are used to waking up in the morning.   If you tell a child a dead person is sleeping you run the risk of them either believing the dead person will wake up, or making them terrified to ever fall asleep again (because they may not wake up).

“She went away”

Last but not least, don’t tell a child a dead person went away.  Telling them this can lead to feelings of abandonment, guilt about making their loved one leave, confusion/concern about why the person never returned, and/or hope that they eventually will return.

For information on talking to children about death check out The Dougy Center or the National Alliance for Grieving Children or this post on the influence of age on a child’s understanding of death.

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March 28, 2017

2 responses on "Talking to Children About Death: The danger of euphemism"

  1. Great article! I have to add in that I really love the book Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way To Explain Death To Children, for our youngest questioning children. Preschoolers and toddlers seem to benefit from understand that each creature has its own lifetime, and every creature is different. http://liesaboutparenting.com/books-on-death-for-preschoolers

  2. excellent article and very down to earth tips for working with grieving children

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