How can I talk about death with my young child?

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Before my daughter was born, two of my sisters had stillborn sons at full term. We still routinely mention the boys, and there are pictures of them in my sisters’ houses. At some point my daughter is going to start asking about who they were and what happened to them, and I’m completely at a loss for how to answer her questions. We’re not talking about natural death at the end of a long, full life — these were babies (one of whom was completely healthy, one of whom might have lived if his health problems had been caught earlier) and their deaths were horrible and traumatic.

I can’t think of anything comforting to say about them, or any way to explain things that won’t leave her thinking the world is a terrifying place full of random, senseless death. Any ideas for the best way to explain this kind of thing?

We’ve talked about children’s books about death and loss and talking to parents who have lost a child — what other advice do you guys have on this topic?

Comments on How can I talk about death with my young child?

  1. I think that first you have to figure out what you think about death. My husband died when my son was an infant. My son is now getting to the age where he is asking what happened to his daddy, where is he, etc. In order to give my son the answers he wanted/needed, I had to figure out what my truth was first.
    I am a lefty Christian so I knew I wanted my answer to include something about the hope I have that death is not the end but also to be respectful of the fact that not everyone feels the way I do and one day my son may not either. I also think it is important for you to share with your child that you don’t have all the answers, that no one does and that there are a lot of scary/sad/crazy things in the world that no one quite understands. My son is five and so far what I have said is this basically, “Daddy’s heart stopped working for reasons no one really knows. (side note: my husband, who was 35, a vegan, and a runner died of a heart attack). Because his heart wasn’t working Daddy’s spirit couldn’t stay in his body anymore so his spirit went to be with God in heaven. I believe that death is not as powerful as love and that we are still connected to Daddy and that he can still love us and we can still love him. I also believe that one day we are all going to get to be with God and with each other, but in the meantime we have to enjoy our lives as much as possible because that is what Daddy wants for us.” Anyway, it’s worked thus far. May not in a few years but I am taking this one day at a time.

  2. I’m really okay with my kids not thinking that I know everything. So when they ask me “why” questions about things like death, I try to let them know that I really don’t know. Why would a baby die? I don’t know. But I would try to explain the feelings that I (and others) have about it. I think I’d say that sometimes sad and unfair things happen and we don’t know why. It’s obviously different, but I am a teacher, and last year one of my former students was shot and killed in Afghanistan. I was really sad. And I just explained to my kids (3 and 6 at the time) that someone I cared about died and that makes me sad. They actually just kind of accepted it at face value.

    You can also try flipping it around back at him. I do this a lot when my kids ask about God. I’m agnostic, but my husband’s a believer, and whatever my kids end up feeling is okay by me. So when they ask if God/Heaven/angels/etc are real, I just ask them what they think and accept their answer. Ask your son why he thinks sometimes people die – you might get a really interesting answer.

    Finally, depending on his age, he might get scared that he’s going to die. You’ll just have to promise him that he’ll live to be an old old man. It’s one of the great lies of parenthood, that we know only wonderful things will happen to our children. But the alternative is just too scary for everyone. I almost always believe in telling my children “the truth,” but I promise them they’re going to be happy and healthy forever, and I think it’s a good policy.

    • I really like the idea of “I don’t know everything.” I’m Catholic-Agnostic so it is already a big part of my life, but it has been hard to express that sentiment to my son when we talk about our family members who have passed on. It’s like I’m at odds with my desire to comfort both him AND ME while also trying to be true to what I feel I know (or don’t know).

    • Both my husband and I as children had sisters die. My daughter is three, and she has started to ask questions. Although it’s scary, when she asked me if she is going to die, I told her the truth. Yes, she will die, and no, there is no guarantee that it will be when she is old, but that is why we try to be safe–look before we cross the street, don’t go into the water without an adult, etc. I don’t want her to grow up and realize I lied to her.
      An interesting thing about this type of conversation is that kids start asking these questions before they can really understand the answers. Some studies show that children can’t process the finality of death until closer to the age of seven or eight.

      • “Some studies show that children can’t process the finality of death until closer to the age of seven or eight.”

        This is very interesting. When I was 4, my younger brother died after a day when both his lungs failed. I didn’t understand it AT ALL at the time. I remember my parents being sad in the waiting room, but that’s all. Around 7 or 8, I started understanding what had happened. We had this little boy doll (an anatomically correct one) and I started carrying it around and being sad about my brother’s death. I call it my mourning period, a whole 3-4 years after his death.

        I like the idea of telling children that they may die. BECAUSE I think it helps them to be aware of their own safety and I don’t like lying. As a teacher, I’ve used it once to drive a point about safety home (to 2 children being incredibly stupid – boy, was I angry at them!!).

        I hope you find a way to talk to your children about death. It’s really wrapped up in your own beliefs and having that define your answers.

        • Just to clarify, because I agree with you, I do tell my children that they can die (if they run in the road, don’t wear a seatbelt or bike helmet, eat poison, etc). But I also tell them that if they get sick, a doctor will make them better. I don’t want them to worry that they’re not going to wake up in the morning, that each cold could be cancer. I don’t tell them that sometimes freak accidents happen and even if everything’s going right, sometimes things go horribly wrong. I think I’m especially sensitive to this issue because my husband is recovering from cancer and getting chemotherapy. Even if they don’t totally understand about death, they can worry about it.

  3. I’ve always liked the way my dad explained it to me. He said that when you die, your body goes back to the earth and eventually you become part of the plants. In this way you don’t truly ever leave. I did ask him about heaven, but he told me that nobody knows for sure but he thought there was nothing after death.

    I’ve always found this comforting. The idea that there isn’t anything after death kind of cancels out any ulterior motives during life (such as doing XYZ to get into heaven/avoid hell). Knowing that your body will continue to be part of the circle of life is pretty damn cool.

    A good way to explain that would be to talk about a nursery log. When a tree falls in the forest (lol) and it begins to rot, it supports more life than it did while it was a living tree.

    Here are some cool nursery log pics

    • This is almost exactly what I told my son. I am an agnostic atheist and had a cancer scare where I realized I didn’t believe in an afterlife. However, I told my son no one knows for sure because when we die, it’s for good. He thinks we all live to be really old unless there’s an accident and had become preoccupied with death lately now that his dad is sharing some of his grandfather’s (who is deceased) possessions with him. I have been careful to share what most major religions believe too, and even things like what the ancient civilizations believed because then he can make a more informed decision about his own beliefs.

  4. That is a huge challenge, to explain death to a little one. Especially when you cannot pretend that death only takes the old. I find the death of an infant is difficult even for adults to talk about, because the prospect raises the really tough questions, ‘why?’
    I do not look forward to this discussion with future children, should I be so lucky to have them, when they ask what happened to their (stillborn) sister.
    I struggle with this daily after 6 years, how to understand what happened and come to terms with it. All I can say to myself is that sometimes terrible things happen, and that it’s okay to be sad about it, to be angry, to feel whatever I feel. We don’t know the reasons for it. I will tell my children these things.

    I can tell them their sister was too young to live outside my body. I can tell them how strong they are, how they grow bigger and stronger everyday. I can tell them how most children grow up big and healthy and live to be very old. I can tell them that their father and I will do everything we can to protect them.

    • This book made the rounds at my support group a few years back, but I’d forgotten about it. Thank you for reminding me! As we are open to another child in our lives, I’m building a small library of children’s books for the future and buying a few at a time. I’ll be sure to add this one as well.

  5. I’m not sure how young your child is, but as someone mentioned earlier, kids younger than 7 or 8 can’t really grasp death’s finality yet. Especially if he’s very young, I would let him take the lead and keep it simple. If he asks who they are, tell him the simple truth that they were his aunt’s babies. He may not need more information than that right now.

    I can definitely say that every child reacts to this kind of thing differently. When my niece first heard about death, she was fascinated and wouldn’t stop talking about it. Loudly. In crowded restaurants. “Are we really all going to die some day? Am I? Are you? Is Daddy? Is that man over there going to die?” My daughter, on the other hand, didn’t want to discuss it and would get upset if we brought up anything about death after a beloved pet died. But she started casually asking a lot of indirect questions like, “If the dog gets sick, will the vet make him better? If I get sick, will you take me to the doctor?” and “Will I get new parents if something happens to you and Dad?”

  6. In our house we have the unfortunate task of dealing with the deaths of pets. Older family dogs, fish, frogs, hamsters, cats, and birds. My daughter was 2 1/2 when the first one died so I made the point of telling her that the animal, my childhood cat, was very very very old and very very very sick. I find that the extra “verys” helps them grasp it more. As time as gone on, she’s 4 1/2 now, she completely understands that when something dies, it’s gone. You are allowed to be sad for however long you need to. We ask her what she would like to do with it, say a little of hamster babies we had that died and were dying, she decided to feed them to one of our snakes. Another time, one of her fish died and she asked for it to be buried in the garden. It sounds really lame, but The Lion King is a pretty good movie to “teach” them about “the circle of life”.

  7. I don’t have kids of my own yet (first one is cooking), but I have had to talk about death to a young child before. I think it’s important to emphasize that it’s okay to be sad and miss the dead person. Often, people try to be overly upbeat about death to children: your dad is in a better place! You’ll see him again someday! Being dead is awesome! You’ll become a plant in the earth! Etc. I think sometimes we make too much of an effort to find something comforting to say, and we end up unintentionally bulldozing over the child’s real feelings of grief.

  8. I think about this a bit, especially because I have my first son’s name and dates tattooed on my forearm so I’m sure I’ll get questions early. I agree very much with the first comment about figuring out where you stand on the afterlife. I don’t want death to scare my kids, but (and this might be a silly concern), I don’t want to make death seem too awesome (you go to this AMAZING place) so that they actually want to die. I know that when my religious parents explained the awesomeness of heaven to me I had a hard time grasping why we didn’t just all kill ourselves and get there early. (goodness I was morbid..)

  9. My kids were 1, 3, 5 and 7 when they lost their 7 month old cousin. Her death itself didn’t impact as much as I thought it might, but family reactions and emotions did, especially for the 5 and 7 year olds. Unfortunately we have been through the deaths of 2 more babies, their grandpa, great-nan and had to deal with the suicide of my cousin. All in 3 years. Yes, we feel like the grim reapers and won’t visit anyone with so much as a headcold anymore! Baby-steps and honesty will see them through understanding. My 4 year old has no real idea what’s happened and refers to all still in the living tense. I correct sometimes depending on the conversation and explain to all of the kids again when they ask. And they do ask. Intermittently and casually, as they gain more knowledge and awareness. Just step up your answers to their age levels when they do.

  10. When I talked to 5 year olds about death, besides saying a lot of the things already mentioned, I’d also emphasize two points: 1) We don’t know when we’ll die, but it’s a matter of probability. Chances are that we won’t die too young (though you might) and we can improve the chances with our behavior (without worrying too much). 2) That we might die any time is a good reason to make sure we live our lives to the fullest right now. Be kind and do right by others. Seek happiness for all.

    • Be very careful with this though. I believe my mom told me something similar when I was very young, and I have lived my whole life panicking about the smallest things. I became very supersticious at a very young age, always worried that my slightest action (or failure to act) could cause someone to die. I was pretty morbid and would spiral into actual depression after movies where a main character dies (man, Lion King was probably the first). I wish I’d had a little more confidence that I wasn’t going to die, because it became paralyzing at points. So just be a little careful with it. I was Catholic and didn’t even think death was a bad thing (heaven is the BEST, why don’t we all kill ourselves and go there now?) but I didn’t want anyone to leave me I guess.

  11. my grandmother and an uncle were dead before I was born. So I always understood that they were gone and not coming back. Then when I was 8 my favorite grandpa died and the school councilor gave me a book about leaves. I remember being very pissed at the book, how stupid the metaphor was (I was a weird kid). I think its better just to talk to kids not down to them (as the leaf book did). Ok I might still harbor some resentment towards the leaf book.

  12. I’m a Pre K teacher, the way we have handled death of any sort ( people, pets, or current events) with the children in my class when they ask questions, is that we keep it very basic. They don’t need to know all the details. For instance, last week some of the children in my class needed to talk about the September 11th anniversary. We explained it like this, ” Sometimes when people are very angry they might make the wrong choices, and sometimes when we make the wrong choices other people can get hurt.”
    As many others have said, while your child may be old enough to ask the questions, she may not be old enough to fully understand what she’s even asking or the answers to follow.

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