Talking to Children about Death

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday, where today’s topic is a bit more serious than usual.

My mother-in-law died on Monday. We were able to go see her before her passing, and it was expected and peaceful. After her death, we also visited the hospital room to say goodbye. My tween and teen boys saw their grandmother just hours before her death, and her corpse after she passed. This was their first experience of seeing a dead person, and we talked them through it.

Thinking back to my days of working as a children’s minister, I remembered a pamphlet I wrote after a prominent young woman in our church died. I have decided to reprint it here in case it helps anyone else. Of course, my approach was from a Christian worldview so the writing reflects that; however, I think there are take-aways for parents coming from various perspectives. The pamphlet was also written with preschool and elementary children in mind.

Talking to Children about Death: A Parent’s Guide

You may have discussed death with your children in the past–perhaps after the loss of a pet, grandparent, or family friend. But when someone with great visibility and impact in our church dies, the questions become more widespread. Many children are now asking their parents difficult, natural questions about death. How should we answer?

Their Questions

Children’s questions may arise after events related to the death of a loved one or in everyday conversations. A child may ask a few questions, go away and play, and return later with more. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information at one time. Let them take their time.

Listen carefully to your child’s questions and give simple, concrete answers. Avoid euphemisms like “passed away,” “resting in peace,” “gone to a better place,” or “lost a loved one.” Children do not understand these phrases. From their perspective, “resting in peace” makes death sound like a nap that you can’t wake up from (a scary thought for a young child) or children may wonder why we don’t simply find the one who was “lost.” Use the word “died” to explain what has happened.

Children learn through repetition, and they may need to hear an answer or explanation from you more than once. Be prepared to repeat.

Children are naturally curious about everything, including death. They may want to know details about the way someone died, the body itself, or the process of burial. It is perfectly fine to discuss some details as they ask for them.

Children want to know where the deceased is now. Saying that she is in heaven may contradict the experience of having buried our loved one. Here are a couple of specific examples to use:

1. “If I could turn your hair purple, would you still be ______[child’s name]?” The child will answer yes. “If I changed your skin to blue, would you still be _____[child’s name]?” Yes. [Use other examples if desired.] “Of course! There’s a part inside you that makes you who you really are, no matter what your outside body looks like. The body of ________[the deceased] is dead, but he will get a new body in heaven and be the same person inside.”

2. “The dragonfly begins as a water bug, living entirely in the water at first. Eventually, the water bug makes its way to the top of the water and sprouts wings. Its new wings are beautiful and now the water bug has become a dragonfly–as God intended. But the dragonfly cannot go back into the water and be with the other water bugs. It will need to wait until the others become dragonflies to be with them again. __________[the deceased’s name] is like the dragonfly. She loves us as she always has, but she cannot return. She is happy, and we will see her again someday in heaven.”

Their Feelings

Children observe adults go through various emotions during this time: We smile and laugh as we remember the life of the deceased, cry and hug when we consider our own loss, and communicate hope and joy at the thought of our loved one in heaven. Children may then wonder, Is this is a happy or sad time? Let children know that it is okay to be sad because we will miss our loved one and okay to be happy that she is now with God; we can be both.

Let your child be a child. Let him know that it is fine for him to play and have fun, even after a sad event such as a death.

It may be helpful to look through photos or mementos of the loved one, let your children draw a picture or write a note about her feelings, or share special memories of the deceased. You might begin with “I remember when” and tell a story about a special moment between your child and the deceased.

Their Need for Reassurance

A common question is “When will you die?” Children are seeking reassurance that they will be cared for. Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep, but let them know that you plan to be here a long time to take care of them. You can also share what plans you have arranged if something were to happen (“If I die, Aunt Jane and Uncle Joe will take good care of you because they love you”).

When someone dies from an illness or accident, children may worry about getting sick or injured themselves. Assure them that serious illnesses are accidents can cause death, but the minor stomach viruses, colds, and boo-boos we get from time to time will not.

Children may ask who will fulfill the roles that the deceased had. In essence, they are asking, “What will happen now?” Answer honestly, with details as you know them or a simple “I don’t know.” But reassure them that those things will be taken care of.

Resources

Candy Arrington, “How to Help Your Child Grieve,” 2005, http://www.family.org.
Julie Gould, “Answering Children’s Questions About Death: A Guide for Children and Adults,” 1997.
Barbara Monroe and Frances Kraus, “Coping with Grief–Bereavement: Children’s Questions,” http://www.bbc.co.uk.
Doris Stickney, Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children (Pilgrim Press, 1997).
The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Patient Education Office, Coping with Grief, 2005.
J.W. Worden, Ph.D., “Talking to Children about Death,” http://www.hospicenet.org.
Carolyn S. Wilken, Ph.D., and Joyce Powell, “Learning to Live through Loss: Helping Children Understand Death,” 1996, http://www.nncc.org.

What advice, if any, do you have for helping children deal with death? Have you had any experience helping children through grief or grieving as a child yourself?

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33 thoughts on “Talking to Children about Death

  1. Sorry for your loss, Julie. My MIL died several years ago, and was also a dear friend. Her mother died a couple years earlier. My daughter was five then, and started to figure out what it meant during the funeral. She asked me who would take her to the park now? I assured her that her dad, her other grandmas, and I would.

    1. Great response, Jennette. Five is young to fully understand the finality of death, but this is how kids learn about life and death as we explain it to them.

  2. So sorry for your loss, Julie. I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of my father-in-law’s death on August 3rd and I still miss him very, very much. And my kids were tween and teen as well. They didn’t talk that much about it since it was expected. He’d been in a nursing home for awhile and was getting very weak and we had to spoon feed him and such. But, it doesn’t take away the hurt and sadness. Nice article with good ideas. Thank you.
    Patti

  3. Beautiful post, Julie. Solid ideas. Sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. My 96 year-old mother is the only one of her generation left. Then I guess our kids and grandkids can be watching my sister, my cousins and me.

  4. I’m so sorry for your loss, Julie. Thank you for posting such wonderful advice. It’s always hard knowing what to say to kids about death and the loss of a loved one.

  5. Sorry to hear about you mother-in-law, Julie. I’ll be thinking of you and your family.

    That’s good advice, especially the part about being prepared to repeat information, and (as parents) having a plan for if the worst should happen.

    1. Thanks so much, Nigel! Indeed, we parents have to repeat information of all kinds all the time…from “put away your shoes!” to “Grandma’s in heaven now.” 🙂

  6. This is so, so wonderful. Though we do not belong to an organized church, your words were wonderfully put. I especially love the dragonfly analogy. My father passed away last year and he had been, until the day he died, a daily presence in my son’s life. It was a struggle to explain Grampa’s absence, and you are right – euphamisms like ‘eternal sleep’ can be problematic. A relative said that to my boy and for over a week we had a hard time getting him to go to bed, and if he woke to find US still sleeping he began to cry (he as 3 at the time). We had to explain repeatedly that the body was not what made us who we are. Such a hard concept to explain to a little one. I wish I’d heard the dragonfly thing then – I think it would have made sense to my little guy.

    1. Thanks so much, Lynnette! I adore that dragonfly analogy, for which I can take absolutely no credit. Three is such a young age to try to explain death because kids are all about what they see, hear, touch, etc. at that age. Intangibles are difficult to grasp. It sounds like you handled it well.

  7. I’m so sorry for your family’s loss, Julie, but am thankful for your mother-in-law that it was a peaceful passing. Our faith is what sees us through these difficult times, despite our heartache. My son, who is autistic, had a very difficult time with the concept of death. His grandmother died when he was three. He wasn’t yet speaking at that time, so we didn’t know how much he understood. We simply spoke to him and explained that Grandma was in Heaven with God and that she still loves him and us, and that we still love her, even though we can’t see her or touch her anymore. As he grew older and was able to verbalize his questions about death, we explained that when it’s a person’s time to go home to God, they must go. We allayed his fear of being “snatched away” by death by saying it generally happens only to very old people who have been ill a long time. Sadly, he learned a few years later that death can and does take away the young as well. A little girl in his elementary school whom he volunteered to push around in her wheelchair on a regular basis, suddenly died in third grade. He was very angry. He also lost his young adult cousin from cancer. We were devastated as well, and it was very difficult to console him when we were unconsolable ourselves. All we could do, and still do to this day, is remember all the wonderful times we had with my niece and try not to dwell on how much we miss her. So maybe that’s the route to go. Encourage your children to talk about their good memories of their lost loved one and the permanence of love.

    1. Beautifully put, Jolyse. I’m saddened to hear that you and your family have been through such losses. I also revel in the good memories of my loved ones who are gone.

  8. Sorry for your loss. Big hugs. You and yours will be in my thoughts and prayers.
    Thank you for this post. My oldest (almost 6-yrs-old) has been asking a lot of questions lately about death. It all started with the loss of his fish, poor beta. When ever we are have important discussions I worry I’m missing something. So, again, thank you.

    1. Thanks so much, SJ! The death of a pet is a great way for kids to start learning about the cycle of life and death. Poor fish is true.

      (Are you old enough to remember the fish funeral episode on The Cosby Show? Surely not, but I do.)

  9. What a FANTASTIC post! As a new mom, I learn so much from you…truly. I appreciate you taking the time out of your grieving to write this out. *hugs* 🙂

  10. I’m sorry for your loss. It can be a difficult thing to lose someone we love even when we know where they are now.

    I’m not a mom yet, but I’m going to keep your tips in mind for when I am. Thanks for this post 🙂

  11. I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for sharing your advice about the common questions children have and how to answer them. The dragonfly metaphor really touched me. I will remember it when my kids are old enough to ask more detailed questions about death.

  12. Julie,

    My thoughts and prayers are with you and others affected by your loss. Fortunately, my children have not yet had to deal with the loss of someone close to us. I had a little taste, however, of just how difficult it can be last week when my 11 year old boy’s cat was hit by a car. I know it’s only an animal, but my boy is different that my other three kids — he’s skinny, anxious, and very sensitive (probably overly so). The cat, Oreo, didn’t die, but had brutal injuries. We took him to the vet and he had to be put to sleep. The grief and pain I saw in my son made me weep — I wept deeply, I wept from my deepest being — for my son.

    We prayed together, made a slide show of pictures of Oreo from kittenhood to raucous tomcat, and talked about all the ways he made us smile. I could have used the tips in this post at that time, though. I think most of it could be adapted for the grief a child feels when he loses a beloved pet.

    Again, my heart goes out to you and yours for your loss.

    Samantha

    1. I know from experience that pet deaths can be hard with kids. Long story short: Post-hurricane, fences were down everywhere and a dog got out of its yard and killed our cat. We had to sit our young kids down and explain what had happened, and it broke my heart to see one kid weep and the other ask a million questions in hopes that understanding would make it better. I’m sorry that your cat is gone and that it was painful for your son. My heart aches for him too.

      On a side note, Oreo is a lovely name for a cat.

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