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Explaining death to a young child

Experts offer tips on how to explain death

Experts offer tips on how to explain death to young children. Credit: iStock

Q. My 2-year-old is asking about her great-grandmother, who recently died. We told her she went away to heaven, and my daughter is asking if she can visit or phone. How do we handle this?

A. Toddlers are very literal, says Karen Jason, clinical psychologist with Holtz Psychological Services of Hicksville. Jason suggests you use factual words, not euphemisms. She recommends telling your daughter her great-grandmother has died. "They see that a bug dies, they see that a flower dies. They're starting to understand the concept," Jason says.

If she asks whether you will die, or if she will die, reassure her you will be around to tuck her in for a very long time. "Make it light," says Jodi Tafarella-Kunz, also a clinical psychologist with Holtz. Tell her you go to the doctor, eat well and take care of yourself, and emphasize that great- grandma was very, very old, Tafarella-Kunz says.

If you talk about heaven, be consistent with your religious beliefs so your explanation comes across as authentic, both psychologists say. Tell your child that our bodies can't go to heaven, but that you and she can "visit" great- grandma through photos and memories, and do so with her.

"A lot of people have a lot of issues dealing with children and death," Jason says. "Dealing with it directly demystifies it."

The psychologists suggest reading the book "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages" with children to help them understand.

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