I was asked today for my advice on how to explain about death and cremations to a 6 year old.
Explaining death to a child is always hard, whether you’re referring to a pet, a person on television or a relative. But to a child, death is death. The meaning of death is something they will learn and experience the older they grow.
I am in no way an expert on this subject; I do however have recent personal experience.
My lovely Granddad passed away last year and my eldest daughter L was in the room with me when I received the phone call. I cannot comment on how anyone else would have reacted, but upon receiving the news, I broke down. I couldn’t control it. It was probably quite scary from her point of view. One minute I was happily putting make up on, the next I’m crying my eyes out crouched on the floor; the newly applied mascara running down my face.
I had to explain to L that her Great-Granddad was so very old and had been poorly for a while, and that he had died. I didn’t use the term “passed away” or “gone to heaven”. I’m not sure why, and thinking back now, I am not even sure that I explained what dying was. I must have assumed that she would know. I feel awful now typing that, but dealing with your own grief kind of takes over I suppose.
L had experienced the death of a various pets previously (rabbits mostly), and so was aware that the body had always been buried on the garden.
But with Granddad, there was a funeral and he was being cremated, not buried. So now I had some more explaining to do.
The only way I could think to explain a funeral was to compare it to a wedding. Everyone in the family would get together at a special place similar to a church to say “goodbye”. There would not be any cake, or dancing, no bridemaids, no photographer. There would be a car though, a black one which would carry the coffin. Once we had said goodbye and talked about Granddad, his body would be cremated, not buried. I explained that his coffin would pass into a massive oven with fire and be burned until all that was left was ash. Then the ash of Granddad’s body would be put into a jar and given to Nanny to bring home. I think I said something along the lines of “Great-Granddads body is too big to bury in the garden, and at least if he is in the jar he can always be with us.”
I didn’t find it difficult explaining the processes involved. L sat and seemed very grown-up all of a sudden, and asked me sensible questions. And I like to think that I gave her the answers she wanted without scaring or lying to her.
I would like to say now that L did not attend the funeral/cremation. She was 8 years old at the time, and in my opinion it would have been too much for her.
We didn’t talk about heaven or God. I didn’t want to make it any more complicated. I am aware that those questions will arise one day. But instead I told her that he would always be with us. Whenever we see sun shining through the clouds, L says that Great Granddad is looking down on us and asks me to take a photo. This is something she has come up with herself. This makes me very happy and proud that she seems to have such a mature outlook on this.
They were like two peas in a pod. They laughed together, talked about school, The age gap of 80 years did not seem to matter, they kind of met in the middle, and enjoyed talking to each other.
So, here is how I believe death, funerals and cremations should be explained to a child:
- Be honest – Don’t lie or make it out to be something it isn’t. There will come a time when they find out for themselves.
- Try comparing it to an occasion they can relate to. In my experience it was a wedding.
- Keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate the matter with information which is irrelevant to their age.
- Always answer any question they have. Don’t be afraid to talk to a child. Sometimes, they will knock you off your feet with how their innocence and maturity can help your grief.
I would point out that I am NOT a childcare expert. I am NOT a counsellor specialising in loss/grief.
I am quite simply a Mum.