The pandemic has brought death to the forefront of family life. From news stories to changes in daily habits so that family members do not infect others with COVID-19, children are hearing about health risks and those who are dying. Some may be mourning family members or have been sick themselves. Parents and caregivers need organizations to help them learn how to talk about death with children in constructive and non-threatening ways.
Research shows that children, like adults, can simultaneously hold both a biological understanding of death (i.e. the body has stopped working) with a spiritual understanding (i.e. something continues even after the body has died). Children may hold a variety of beliefs from explicitly discounting an afterlife, to believing that certain bodily functions, such as seeing and talking continue in the afterlife. When forced to choose between a biological or spiritual understanding of death, children, like adults, tend to default to their spiritual understanding.
Children explore ideas of death through conversations and rituals. Because they cannot learn about death through direct experience like they might learn about properties of water or cause and effect, they rely on the testimonies of trusted adults. Studies show that children who have conversations about death with trusted adults experience less anxiety and have better coping mechanisms for dealing with death. In addition, cultural and religious practices such as funerals, Easter celebrations, and ancestor altars offer children ritualized ways to understand death.
To help families begin talking constructively about death as the pandemic continues, remind them of the two aspects of death (biological and spiritual) that children can comprehend. Suggest that they organize their conversations around both aspects, beginning with the biological and then shifting to the spiritual.
From a biological perspective: Remind parents that children have some direct experience with other living things that have died, such as pets, bugs, even leaves in the fall, that will help to put this conversation into context. They also see and hear about people dying from COVID-19 and other illnesses and may have ideas about what happens to the body when people die.
Encourage parents to invite children to talk about dead creatures they have seen and how that informs their thinking about people who die. They might even ask children directly: What do you think happens to the body of someone who dies from COVID-19? Once they receive the child’s answer, parents and caregivers can provide additional information about bodies and death.
From a spiritual perspective: Encourage parents to provide space for children to talk about their understanding of what happens after death to a person’s spirit, soul, or memory. If there are cultural or religious rituals that families use, suggest that they share those experiences with their children. They might also work with their children to identify additional ways to remember a person after they have died.
To help them get a spiritual conversation started, recommend that they read a book or watch a movie that explores the concept of death in child-friendly ways. Julia Alvarez’s Where Do They Go? or Disney Pixar’s Soul are great choices for families to use as a springboard for conversation.