Parents in my classes ask: “when should I talk to my child about death?” I say: whenever the opportunity presents itself. Because death is a part of life. There will be plenty of chances to talk about it. Here are just some of the opportunities I’ve encountered with my youngest child in the past year or so.
On the walk to my son’s kindergarten, once we saw a dead squirrel, another time, we found the leg of a bird, and there was a lost cat sign up for months, which led to lots of discussions of what might have happened to the cat. On the way to first grade, we drive past a cemetery. On Memorial Day, he asked whether we would have a party for this holiday, and I explained why we don’t “celebrate” Memorial Day, which led to a whole discussion of death, war, what is a generation, and so on. A member of our church, a teacher at school, and a student at school have died, and he heard people speaking about these deaths and being sad about them. His older sister’s pet gecko died and we buried it together. We heard on the news about many people being killed in a shooting. (I try not to listen to the news much around him… but this was a TV that was on in a public place.) His pea plant died. We see flowers on a sign post on the side of a highway where a fatal car accident occurred. Somehow at school, a discussion came up of the danger of thunderstorms, and he worried for a few days about whether his dad would be struck by lightning and killed. He was wondering about heaven. He’s seen death occur in many books, movies, and TV shows. Each time one of these ‘teachable moments’ came up, we talked openly about death, the dying process, and grief. None of these were long drawn-out, or stressful conversations. Most were brief (one minute?) discussions, where I try to be as matter-of-fact about things like decomposition as I am about things like new buds coming out on a tree. I try to talk about grief as a natural emotion similarly to how I talk about other emotions.
And… then his grandmother died. My mom had Alzheimer’s and had been fading for a few years. We had been open with my son about this and the fact that she was no longer able to do the things she had done before. This April, I had to travel to be with her for a few days as we moved her into hospice care, and then my husband and I traveled for her funeral. Around this time, we have lots of long conversations with my son about death.
I was so glad that we had a long history of open and honest conversations about this part of life. I can only imagine how hard it would be for a parent who had tried to avoid this subject for years to suddenly have to explain it for the first time when she is managing her own grief over the loss of a parent and the child’s loss of a grandparent.
When talking with a child about anything, it always helps to have some knowledge of their developmental stage, and what they’re likely to be able to understand, versus what might simply be over their head at this age. Here is how children’s understanding of death evolves:
- Preschool age (3 – 5). Even if you explain what death is (when something living stops functioning – stops breathing, growing, etc.), they may not be able to grasp what you mean. They may believe death is temporary and reversible. Although children see many deaths in movies and stories, they don’t really see a lot of what happens afterward when that character never returns.
- Early elementary age (5 – 9): Children come to understand that death is final. They aren’t clear on what causes death. They also learn that all living things will someday die, but tend not to yet grasp that they themselves will someday die.
- Tweens (age 9 – 12): They understand what death is – that organisms no longer function in the way they did when they were alive. They understand that death is final, and that they will die someday.
- Teenagers: Begin to wonder about the meaning of life and form beliefs about what happens after death. Some begin taking risks, as if to test their own immortality.
When and How to Talk
Be thoughtful about whether you bring it up.
There’s typically no reason for you to push the topic or start the conversation, unless you believe a death will come soon to someone they care about. (Just as we’d talked to my son about his grandmother as she declined, we also have a 16 year old dog who is ailing, so when he has bad days, we let my son know that Rufty may not be with us much longer.) This allows them to build special memories, and say some goodbyes so there are fewer regrets later on about what was not done or said.
If they bring it up, don’t change the subject.
Let them know it’s OK to talk about it, and you’re glad they feel comfortable asking you.
If they’ve asked a question, clarify exactly what they’re asking. Sometimes they want just a simple basic answer and we go into the Big Talk about everything they’ll ever need to know about death and totally overwhelm them.
Turn the question around, and ask them what they already know. This lets you set a baseline for what you need to talk about versus what they already understand. It also allows you to correct misconceptions. For example, if they ask when someone will come back to life, we may need to explain the permanency of death, and how it’s different than when kids just “pretend to be dead” while playing.
Often when someone asks a question, there is an underlying concern behind the question. If your child seems worried when they ask you about something, think what fear might be behind the question. If a child asks you “can parents die?”, they’re really asking “will you die? Who will take care of me?” If you suspect this is the case, you can put it into words for them: “are you worried I won’t be here to take care of you?”
First, unless you have reason to suspect otherwise, say “I don’t expect to die any time soon. I know that idea feels scary to you, but I expect I will live for a long time yet.” (Note, you didn’t promise anything, because we can’t ever really promise that.) Then reassure that even if that were to happen, they would be OK: “But if I did die, here’s who would take care of you.”
Think about key points to make about what death is.
There are a few key ideas to convey at some point – not all at once, but in multiple minute-long conversations through their childhood:
- Death is the cessation of life functions. Use simple terms and concrete examples from their life experience. “When an animal dies, it no longer breathes, or eats, or moves or feels hungry.” “Do you remember when your pea plant died, and it stopped growing?”
- Death is caused by physical reasons. Describe in a simple, non-graphic way what caused a death. Explain enough that they understand… for example, don’t just say “she died because she was sick”, because then the next time your child is sick with a cold, they might think they might die. Explaining something like “she’s really sick, with a disease called _____. It’s not something I would expect you or me to get…”
- Note: Children are inherently self-centered – their world view rotates around themselves. This can often mean that if someone dies, they wonder if it was their fault. “I said ‘I hope you die’ and then they did!!!” This can lead to a lot of guilt and shame. Reassure them that the death is not their fault.
- Death is permanent.
- Don’t confuse them by saying the person “went to sleep” because then it can be scary to go to sleep, or saying the person “went away” because then they will worry when you “go away” to the grocery store that you may never come back. Using the word death is actually helpful to reduce these anxieties.
- Saying that the person who passed away is “watching over you”, or asking your child to “draw a picture for grandma to tell her how much you miss her” may confuse children about the permanency of death. If the idea that someone is watching over you from heaven fits into your belief structure, it’s fine to say this, but just be aware of this possible confusion effect.
- Everything that is alive will someday die. You may also address that different things have different expected life spans. We might expect some pets to only live for a few years. We expect people to live for many decades. (Again, you may need to reassure them that you or other important adults expect to be around for a long while still.)
- At some point, we’ll need to acknowledge that not only old people / animals die. It can happen to someone very young, it’s just less likely.
You may worry that you don’t know what to say about things like what death feels like, or what happens after you die. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. You can say to your child “No one knows for sure. I believe ________.”
Share your own beliefs.
One of the reasons it’s important to talk to your children about hard things (read “Better You than YouTube”) is so you can share your own values with them and talk about the beliefs that are important to your family.
Note: one thing that can confuse children is when parents say things like “he’s happy up in heaven now” but the parent is clearly grieving and sad. They may not understand why you’re sad about something that makes the departed one happy. You can explain that you are sad the person is no longer with you, and you can’t spend time with them any more.
Talk about how we might feel about death.
Don’t be shy about talking about grief. It is one of many emotions that we humans experience. (Emotional literacy is a key life skill we want our children to gain.) Sadness about someone’s loss is a reflection of the fact that they mattered to us. Share what your feelings have been about various losses in your life.
But also talk about the wide range of reactions that people may have. Some may be sad. Some may be angry. Some may not seem to react at all. And some may react on a different schedule. It’s all OK.
Know when to move on.
Sometimes your child may ask more questions in the moment. Sometimes not. If your child has initiated a discussion about death, then seems ready to move on before you think “we’re done”, follow the child’s lead and move on. Prolonging the conversation will only cause discomfort.
Children learn through repetition, so expect that they make ask some questions again and again.
When a child is grieving.
Sometimes there losses that we would consider big in a child’s life where they don’t seem to react. Give them time and space for their own reaction. And other times, there are things we think of as small sadnesses – seeing a dead bird by the road, or a death in a storybook, where our child may suffer deep grief. Don’t dismiss them or tell them “don’t feel bad.” Honor their right to their feelings, whatever the cause.
Don’t avoid talking about the person who has died. Even though they’re no longer here, you can still remember them. They may want to do a ceremony, or create a shrine to help them remember. You could establish new traditions of continuing to do a favorite thing they did with the person who has passed away.
Your child may need help remembering the person won’t come back. They may ask again and again when they will return. They are not doing this to upset anyone. They’re just wrapping their minds around the permanency of death.
Your child may “play” death. They are just trying to understand. It’s fine to use puppets or stuffed animals to tell the story or play things out. It may also help your child to draw their feelings and memories.
Many children will regress or have behavioral challenges after a death of a loved one. Be patient and understanding with them, but don’t overly coddle them. Normal family rules should still apply. The sooner you get back to normal routines, the better. This helps you all move forward to the “new normal” of what your life will look like in the future.
Funerals: If a loved one has died, you may decide not to have the child participate in the funeral. If they will attend the service, be sure to prepare them – telling them who they will sit with, how they should behave, and what will happen. For example,
“Lots of people who loved Grandma will be there. We will sing, pray, and talk about Grandma’s life. People might cry and hug. People will say things like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or, ‘My condolences.’ Those are polite and kind things to say to the family at a funeral. We can say, ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘Thanks for coming.’ You can stay near me and hold my hand if you want.” (source)
If the person’s body will be at the service, talk to your child about that. (Note: although people worry that seeing a body would be upsetting to children, they typically take it in stride). Explain burial if they will go to the cemetery. Explain if there will be a wake or reception of some sort – explain that people will talk and share happy memories of the one who has passed.
If you expect to experience a lot of strong emotions at the funeral, you may want to either not bring the child or ask another adult to help care for the child and sit with the child during the service. Remind your child that it is not their fault you are sad.
Using Media to Start the Conversation
There are several excellent books and some shows that are explicitly designed to help children understand death and manage grief. There are also many excellent books and movies that include a death that you can use to help you start a conversation.
Here are recommended books: https://imaginationsoup.net/childrens-picture-books-grief-death/; https://www.familyeducation.com/videos/12-childrens-books-help-explain-tragedies-death; https://pjlibrary.org/blog/january-2017/childrens-books-about-death.
Find movies and shows listed here www.ranker.com/list/kids-entertainment-dealing-with-death/matt-manser, and here https://whatsyourgrief.com/death-in-disney-movies/
- Talking to Children about Death:
- How to talk to your preschooler about death:
- How to Talk to Kids About Death: https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/how-to-be-a-parent/communication/talk-to-kids-death/#.Ww2MnPZFyrQ
- How Children Understand Death:
- When Someone Dies: A Child-Caregiver Activity Book
Here’s a free printable handout on Talking with your Child about Death that you can share with others.
To learn how (and why) to talk about other difficult topics with your child (including sexuality, “tricky people”, scary topics, and more: read Better You Than YouTube.