Talking To Young Children About Death
February 4, 2010 · Posted in Communication, K-5 Kids, Parenting · Permalink

cosmosThe dreaded “D” word.  Parents worry so much about talking to their children about death. We as a culture are so death phobic, we like to pretend it only happens to other people. Ben Franklin said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Maybe some people can get out of taxes, but so far no one has escaped eventually dying.

So since it is inevitable, let’s focus on the positive side of what young children can learn when someone close dies. First, they can experience comfort. When a person in the family dies, they observe the coming together to show love and support – with flowers, food or a visit. They can offer and listen to stories and memories and pictures.  What a wonderful lesson to teach – when someone dies, we can get comfort and give comfort and that is profoundly satisfying.  We can teach our children that death can bring people together.

If the person had been sick, children learn that one of our most important jobs is to take care of loved ones when they need us. They will see you model that and will grow up to care of their families and friends as well.

Another opportunity that death brings is the chance to begin a discussion that has been the source of some of the most profound thought – what is the nature of life and what is death. Children are so philosophical and ask the most amazing questions as they grapple with the limits of their level of cognition. This will result in you as an adult beginning to think about these questions as well. Some of you will rest on age old traditions from your religious upbringing and family, some will be at a loss and need to create some new ways of approaching death.

For the people that feel less sure about what happens or do not believe in any afterlife or God, they often feel strongly about not “lying to their children”. Children need stories and fables to understand the world around them, but that does not mean they will continue to believe in that explanation for the rest of their lives. Do you have the same feelings about God or death that you did at 6 or 16 or 26? Most likely you won’t feel the same at 56 or 86 either. If you have to use metaphors or fables to help your children understand loss, know that those ideas will grow and change. So if you talk about heaven as a peaceful place you go when you die or about reincarnation and questions arise such as, “Do you think Grandpa’s next life will be as a squirrel or dog?” do not worry that if this is not your belief you are lying. On the contrary, you are helping a child think about the lasting nature of that person.

Here are some things to say that are clear, simple and honest:

We won’t see Grandpa anymore, but we can think of him and look at pictures of him and tell stories about him.

All things in nature have a life and then they die, like flowers and fish and doggies and people.

Kids will worry about losing you as well, you can reassure them that you are healhty and strong and are there to take care of them. If they ask if you will die one day you should answer yes, but you hope it will be a very long time form now.

Remember that children as young as one or two will recognize and understand on some level that a special person has died. So be conscious of little ears.

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  1. Lydia Morrison
    February 17th, 2010 | 6:15 pm

    Wonderful article – makes so much sense!!!

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