It happened when my daughter was 3 years old. She asked what death meant. The conversation occurred while she was in the car with my husband and me. We had just heard on the radio that the DJ, Vinnie Peruzzi, had died. My husband and I were discussing his death when my daughter asked, “What does that mean?” I froze, not sure what to say. I tried to formulate the right words (especially since I had taught classes on death and dying and knew how important it was to be honest with kids). While in the midst of my struggle to find an appropriate answer my husband (who has no background in grief) said, “His body stopped working.” “Brilliant!” I thought. Simple, to the point, honest and age-appropriate. We waited for the follow-up questions, but there were none. She was satisfied with that answer.
Looking back I’m glad we were able to have that conversation with our daughter and take advantage of a teachable moment. It gave us something to build on as she grew and lived through the death of people she actually knew.
As parents, we all try to protect our children. It seems morbid to talk about the reality of death with our innocent little ones, but it’s important and necessary. I know it’s not easy. I’ve been there with both of my kids, and I’ve made mistakes along the way. So I compiled a list of the most common mistakes parents make when discussing death with kids.
Mistake #1: We don’t talk about death with kids!
We allow kids to watch Disney movies where parents die. We read grim fairy tales and sing lullabies about babies falling out of trees. But when death occurs in real life we are silent. We avoid conversations in front of the children. We think we are protecting and shielding them from loss but they are exposed to it anyway, so we need to give them a proper context within which to define and understand death.
Talking about death should occur before a beloved person or pet dies. And the sooner the conversation begins the better! Use everyday events to start a dialogue. A dead animal on the street, a celebrity who dies, a funeral you attend, death in a book or on TV are all opportunities to talk. For example, when watching the movie Frozen you can ask your child, “What happened to Elsa and Anna’s parents?” “How do you think they feel about that?”
Death should be a dinner-table conversation. A car ride discussion. A topic that gets seamlessly woven into other conversations. If we talk about death in familiar places it becomes just a part of life. Death won’t be so scary if we talk openly about it from a young age. If we speak in whispers or behind close doors, children may think that whatever is going on is so bad that it cannot be discussed openly. Their imagination will conjure up scenarios that are very scary to them and they will be too frightened to share their thoughts with us.
The death of a pet is often a child’s first experience with someone dying. How we handle this sets the stage for how our children will understand loss and the importance of grief and mourning. For example, when the goldfish dies our inclination may be to quickly replace it before anyone notices. We figure we can avoid the truth about death and keep our child happy. Instead we miss an opportunity to talk honestly about death, be present to our grieving child and create a meaningful death ritual together, such as burying the fish in the back yard and planting flowers around it.
Mistake #2: We don’t use the word “dead.”
I know dead is a four-letter word, but it shouldn’t be on the bad-word list!
The language we use when discussing death is very important. Saying the word “dead” and explaining it as “when the body stops working” is honest and appropriate for a child of any age. We can help children understand what death means by explaining the difference between animate and inanimate objects and that only living things die. We can reassure our young child that their beloved stuffed animal won’t die (it may get lost or fall apart but it will not die!).
When we use euphemisms for death we can confuse and unintentionally frighten children who tend to understand things literally. For example saying, “We put the cat to sleep” or “Grandpa’s in eternal rest” can lead a child to think sleep is death. That scary thought can lead to trouble sleeping or tantrums at bedtime. When I was 3 years old I was told that my deceased elderly relatives “went on a vacation.” Fortunately I never developed a fear of vacations!
Toddlers often believe death is reversible. Telling them, “Aunt Mary is gone” or “We lost Uncle Bob” can reinforce a child’s belief that Mary and Bob are coming back eventually. It helps kids grasp the finality of death when we clearly state that somebody has died, rather than “passed away.”
For older kids death is personified as someone like the Grim Reaper or the Boogeyman. Death may be viewed as irreversible but escapable. We need to be especially careful of our “God” talk because when we say, “God wanted another angel in heaven” or “God only takes the good ones,” a child may see God as a type of Boogeyman.
Mistake #3: We say too much or too little.
It’s perfectly normal for many 3- to 5-year-olds to ask questions about death. This can really startle parents! Our instinct may be to quickly change the subject, but this is a great time to entertain those questions. Ask what they think death is. Encourage their curiosity about death at any age. They may want to know if a dead body can eat, sleep, drink or go to the bathroom. They may wonder what happens to a body after it dies (they may want a physical explanation or they may want a more spiritual/philosophical answer). It’s OK to share your faith beliefs with your children but long exhortations on theological concepts can be hard for a young child to grasp.
We tend to say too much to young children and too little to older ones. Simple questions require simple answers and more complex questions require more nuanced answers. And sometimes the most truthful answer is “I don’t know” or “I wonder that myself sometimes.” For example, a young child asks, “Why did Grandma die?” You answer, “Because her body stopped working.” If that satisfies the child then that may be all they want to know at that moment. If there is a follow-up question, then answer it and continue to answer those follow-up questions, even if you get the same round of questions the very next day! Your repetitious answers will help the child wrap their head around what happened.
If the death was sudden, such as an accident, homicide or suicide, you can continue to address questions as they come and answer truthfully but in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your child. “Dosing” is recommended where you present information a piece at a time, watching carefully for your child’s reaction and if they are eager for more details or if they have had enough.
Sometimes we do too much talking and not enough listening. Kids need our presence more than anything else during difficult times. Just being around, by hugging, holding hands and playing together, and being available is invaluable to a child of any age.
Mistake #4: We make promises we can’t keep.
What do you say to a child who asks, “Mommy are you going to die?” It’s very hard to face your child and answer this question honestly. We don’t want to scare them but we must be truthful. Telling children that we will never die is a lie. Saying “I’m not going to die for a long time” is a potential lie. If you die tomorrow not only does your child have to mourn your death but they also carry the extra burden of wondering why you lied to them. A more honest statement would be to explain that everybody dies eventually and we really don’t know when we will die, but we can do our best to stay healthy and strong because we want to live a long life. You can offer concrete examples such as eating fruits and vegetables as a way to help your body stay healthy.
We can also try and figure out what the child is really asking if we pose the question, “Why do you want to know about that?” Maybe they just read a Harry Potter book for the first time and realize that parents die. Maybe they saw something on the news. Maybe their real worry is not about your mortality but about who is going to take care of them. This is a very common concern for young children. Let kids know the plan (and hopefully you do have a plan) if you die. Be prepared for questions that may appear silly but are an attempt to understand the plan. When my youngest daughter was 6 years old she asked, “If you all die will I be able to cook for myself?” Kids may even create their own plan. One time my daughter proudly stated, “If you all die I will drive the car.”
What if a child asks if they will die? Promising that we will never let anything happen to our children is a lie. We cannot control everything and, as hard as it is to admit, we can’t always protect our child. If we began having conversations about life and death from a very young age, then answering the question “Will I die?” won’t be so daunting. We have already set the stage for this discussion and our children know it is OK to ask this question. We can remind them what it means to die and share our religious or philosophical beliefs. Children will feel safe talking about death with us when they can freely ask questions. They may want to know what will happen to their toys when they die or if they can take their favorite blanket with them.
Even though we cannot guarantee a long life for ourselves or our children, we can reassure our kids that we will love them forever, no matter what.
Mistake #5: We don’t take kids to funerals.
When is a good age for a child to attend a death-related ritual such as a funeral? Any age! There is no magic year when a child is “ready.” A child’s first time in a funeral home should not be when a close family member dies. Bring your kids to funerals of your friends or distant relatives. It is less personal and therefore less traumatic.
Children of any age should not only be invited but encouraged to attend death-related rituals. But there must be preparation beforehand and “debriefing” after. It should be explained to the child what they will see and who will be there. Never say the dead person is “just sleeping” if you attend a funeral with an open casket. You can explain that they look like they are sleeping but they are actually dead.
Allow children to be involved. Young children can draw pictures for the casket or help pick out flowers. Older kids can read a scripture passage, poem or eulogy. They can also serve as pallbearers.
If you are concerned about your children getting bored or unruly during the services, ask a family friend that your child knows to look after them. This will allow you the space to mourn while your kids can come and go, eat, etc. Ask the funeral director if there is a children’s room and if not request some space where kids can hang out and read books, color, play games or watch TV.
These days we take our kids everywhere – on vacations, to fancy restaurants, to sporting events, parties, etc. They are included in so many aspects of life. Why should they be excluded from death? Death is a part of life!
Talking about death before, during and after somebody dies isn’t morbid. It’s a wonderful gift to our children as we are fostering resiliency and trust, and reinforcing the truth that families can get through anything together.
Cheryl Amari, M.A., C.T., is a grief educator and the founder/owner of GriefTeach; griefteach.com. She offers a unique and creative approach to grief with education, consulting and coaching services for all types of loss.