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How to explain death to a child

Q: How do you prepare children for the death of a family member or pet? We have an elderly cat who is much beloved. She is doing fine but obviously winding down. I also have elderly parents. My son is 7. - A mother in Mebane

An explanation about death can start with baby steps in nature but needs to build on a child's life experiences. What does your son already know?

"What's most important is to tell the truth," says Michael F. Lewis, a psychologist in western New York. "Too often families choose to tell children things that are less than accurate when a family member or pet is near death or has died."

Parenting tip:

Among many books to help kids understand the death of a pet is ”Saying Goodbye to Lulu“ (Little, Brown and Company, 2004) by Corinne Demas. A young girl grieves and changes with the seasons after the death of her dog. Also in the classic ”The Tenth Good Thing About Barney“ (Atheneum, 1971) by Judith Viorst, a boy grieves about the death of his cat, Barney.

By age 7, research shows, a child typically begins to understand that death is permanent, that the body of a deceased person or pet does not work anymore and never will. But video games and cartoons in which characters are killed, then spring back to life, can confuse kids as they try to understand what death means.

Euphemisms such as "We've lost grandma" also cloud the issue. Lewis says. An explanation to a child such as grandpa has "gone to sleep" may seem easier to understand, but it's often confusing and can be scary. "What if I don't wake up either?" a child could start to wonder.

But when telling the truth about an imminent death, it's not necessary to provide every detail, the psychologist says. A child needs to know that their pet was hit by a car but doesn't need to know details of the accident.

Also, activities immediately before or after death are important for children. If seeing the family member or pet prior to death is OK, then a child should be allowed to do so.

Parents and teachers often use nature to explain the cycle of life and death. An easy example is a vibrant leaf on a tree versus a crunchy one on the ground. To build a further connection, read together the book "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf" by Leo Buscaglia. As Freddie goes through the seasons with his companion leaves, he realizes that death is part of life.

Drawing pictures, writing stories about special memories and making collages also are good ways to get children to begin to process their grief.