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Death: Talking to my child about its meaning

Whether it's a pet or a person, the death of a loved one can be a confusing, upsetting and possibly scary time for children. They may feel abandoned. They may think it's their fault for being bad or doing something wrong. Most children will wonder what happens to their pet or grandparent who dies. Children worry about whether they could die, too. Preschoolers almost all worry about whether you and other loved ones are going to die.

When talking to your child about death, approach the topic in a gentle and sensitive way. If your child is young, let him know that death is final and that all living things have a beginning and an end of life. Help your child understand that death is a part of the natural cycle. You can start with non-threatening examples, such as trees, butterflies, birds and fish, explaining that they all have their own life span.

Also tell your child that sometimes living things become ill or get hurt so badly that they can no longer stay alive. But emphasize that most people and pets can recover from their illness and hurt, and live until they are very old.

When discussing death with your child, try to be as open and honest as possible. It's best to follow your child's lead. Encourage your child to express what she thinks and feels, and to ask questions. Then do your best to answer them. But don't pretend that you have all the answers. It's a good idea to let your child know that you don't have all the answers, and that some things are hard for everyone to understand, no matter what their age.

It's not a good idea to use fairy tales, ghost stories or expressions like "going away" or "went to sleep" to explain death. If you tell a young child that grandpa "went to sleep," the child may become frightened of going to sleep, fearing that he will die too. If you believe in afterlife, explain your beliefs carefully but be aware that your young child may misunderstand some of it. It's important to explain to your child that he won't see the dead person or animal again on earth. For more assistance, talk to other parents, or visit a parent resource centre or bookstore for advice. If you are in Canada, and you wish to speak with a counsellor about this, call the Parent Help Line, 1-888-603-9100.

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