Talking about death with children can be very difficult in the context of the unexpected death of a loved one. For this reason, it is good to help children talk about death as it comes up in the context of everyday living, well ahead of an intense personal loss.
The passing of the seasons, the death of a pet, the death of a more distant elderly person: any of these can become an occasion to begin a conversation about dying. Predictably, once the topic is on the table, as it were, kids can be relied upon to return to it from time-to-time, as long as they get the message it is okay to do so. Children's innate curiosity can be a bonus in this area and many others, as long as you meet their inquiries with honesty and caring, and don't try to offer too much all at once. Your task, in advance, would be to remind yourself what you believe or know about death and dying and then, if possible, to translate some of these concepts into "kid-speak". The following may provide a guide:
1. Death is a part of life-all living things die eventually and sometimes that death means beauty for us, in the form of coloured autumn leaves for example.
2. A person who is dying is still a person-someone who is dying still has ideas and can even laugh at times.
3. Death is not contagious-being around someone who is dying is not going to cause anyone else to die.
4. Thinking angry thoughts about another person does not cause them to die.
5. There are people and rituals to help us deal with death.
6. Death is not always a sad thing for the person dying--sometimes it can be a welcome way to get away from pain and sickness
7. When we love someone and they love us, that love will always matter, even if the person dies
In an environment open to such things, children will bring forward questions, some of which may reveal some surprising notions. Assessing how much to tell, or even what exactly is the crux of the question for a young child, can be a challenge. Still, rest assured: typically, the questions will keep coming over time until the child's central question is finally answered.
While capable of touching concern for others, children are essentially egocentric. This is appropriate and to be expected. However, one of the results of this egocentric focus is that children may fear they have caused the death somehow. Especially younger children may need to be assured, sometimes repeatedly, that nothing they did or did not do brought on the death of a loved one.
Like adults, children grieve and that grief may be expressed in crying, guilt, denial or anger. Depending upon the circumstances and the closeness of the person who has died, a child's grief may be shown in fear of falling asleep, nightmares, clinging behaviors and "acting out" in a variety of ways. It is important to allow kids to talk about and otherwise express their feelings. If you are also grieving, let them know it, so they will not feel alone in their distress.
There are many books available to assist in helping children cope with the death of a loved one. Quality bookstores will have age-appropriate selections. Still, it is the conversation with significant adults in their lives that will most help children find a way to accommodate death in their worlds.