Talking with Children About Death

Photo by Kat Caldera

My aunt died yesterday. I haven’t seen her in years but it still feels like a sock in the gut to realize that I’ll never hug her or talk to her again. She was such a fun and vibrant woman. Her death was unexpected and quite shocking to the whole family. My heart goes out to my uncle, cousins, and especially to her only granddaughter.

Death is such a strange part of life. The antithesis of life really, and also a great reason to savor every moment of life. We never know how many or how few moments we might have with our loved ones, so we’ve got to make every one count. In the case of a death within our inner circle of family or friends, we are forced to figure out a way to talk with children about this challenging topic.

In an ideal world, I would like to think that we can talk about death in the same straightforward way we talk about all sorts of things with our kids. But for most of us, death can bring up such dark and scary feelings that we have a tendency to tiptoe around it or offer confusing stories and explanations based on our spiritual beliefs.

I’ve decided not to wait until someone close to us dies to talk with my daughter about death. Instead, I use every opportunity to discuss death and dying and I try my best to be real and honest about it. Lately she’s been really into dinosaurs, which has led to a lot of conversation about death and extinction.

When we go to the High Desert Museum she’s fascinated with the stuffed displays and often asks, “Is it real or dead?” I usually ask her to tell me what she thinks. Death is a difficult concept for children to understand. The finality of it is elusive, the sadness adults experience around death is baffling, and because young kids are still working on forming their primary attachments, many of them have not yet experienced the pain of loss. And that’s OK. Personally, I’d like to put that experience off for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, it’s not up to us to decide when or how tragedy might strike. And if we’ve never even broached the subject of death with our children before, it can be even more difficult to initiate the conversation when we’re mourning.

I recommend introducing the concepts of death and dying in casual conversation and then waiting to see if your child has follow-up questions. The more centered and grounded we can be as we talk about death, the better, but if you find yourself feeling emotional as you talk with your child, just share your feelings honestly. “I’m feeling sad right now because I miss Grandma.”

One thing to watch out for when talking with children about death is the sleeping metaphor. Children take things very literally and don’t understand metaphor, so telling a young child that, “Spot is sleeping and won’t wake up anymore” can be terrifying for them. I’ve heard stories of children fighting sleep and waking with nightmares, because they’re fearful that they might never wake up. It’s better to avoid any connection between sleep and death until children are around 10-12 years old.

Personally, I also avoid talking about “heaven” or other spiritual aspects of death until children are curious or ask direct questions like, “What happens to us after we die?” And then I try to offer as unbiased an explanation as possible. “Well, our bodies rot away and nobody knows for sure what happens to the rest of us. Some people think we go to a place called ‘heaven’, what do you think?”

If a child directly asks me what I believe, I’m happy to share my thoughts and beliefs, but I would rather encourage them to come up with their own ideas about what might happen after our bodies die. If we wait until children initiate these deeper conversations about death, they often won’t happen until children are around 8-10 years old and for some, as late as the teen years.

I do think it’s best to decide with your partner how the two of you want to approach this topic with your children. Whether you agree on an afterlife or not, when you’re on the same page and give similar answers to your child’s questions, your kids will feel reassured that his parents have given the same information on the subject. On the other hand, if you introduce the concept of a soul and heaven and your husband is an atheist, you might have more explaining to do than you bargained for. Then again, what a great opportunity to discuss your own beliefs further!

So, I’m curious, have you talked with your child or children about death yet? What did you say? How did they respond? Is there anything I forgot to mention that you’d like to share with the other parents here?

I hope you’re having a nice week. Warm hugs, Shelly

More resources including a list of picture books about death: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001909.htm

2 comments
StaciaSanders
StaciaSanders

My son asked about the graveyard in the middle of town.  I explained that was where dead people's bodies were buried.  Not too long after that, he received The Lion King as a gift, and when he asked if Mufasa was sleeping, I explained that his spirit had left his body, and that his body was dead.  The last part of our death saga was an unfortunate beta fish that was removed from its tank and gently "petted."  It went into shock even though I managed to save it from his little hands, and was dead the next morning  My husband and I did argue about whether or not to discuss in depth and have a sea burial (read here: flush).  My son didn't quite seem to get it and was very unemotional about his poor fish until I asked if he would like to flush Cherry or should I do it.  Then he suddenly seemed to understand that Cherry wouldn't be coming back.  So I'm sad that he had to experience this (although I'm sure his future fish will appreciate me!) and I'm also glad that his first experience with grief was a FISH and not a beloved person.

AwakeShelly
AwakeShelly moderator

 Hey@StaciaSanders, Thanks so much for sharing your story. It sounds like you're doing a great job of introducing the concept of death without going overboard. I lost some fish once and buried them in the back yard in a little box. I still remember it and I agree, it's a much better first experience of death than the death of a loved one. I hope he'll make it through his mourning quickly and easily. Hugs, Shelly

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  1. […] Life is fragile. But I remind her that her heart is beating strong and she’s a healthy kid. Death is a difficult concept to understand at her age. And I’m sorry that it has hit so close to home […]