10 simple tips for talking to your little ones about death

Source: Pxhere
Talking about death with kids is not easy, but there is plenty of simple advice to be found.

When my eldest was 3 years old, I ordered a picture book of a Japanese traditional story (it was “Hanasaka Jiisan”花咲かじいさん for those Japanese moms out there). But when I read it, I was shocked—I had completely forgotten that the tale included a dog being brutally beaten to death by an evil old man! Unprepared to deal with this, I hid the book in our bookshelves, thinking I’ll pull it out when the kids were older.

Predictably, just one or two weeks later, I got home and...my kids ran up to me with the book in hand, starry-eyed, begging for me to read it to them. And I was forced to answer their questions about death on the spot. Over and over again.

But this turned out to be a good thing. Two months after these series of chats, their great-grandmother, who lived next door to us, passed away. And so my 3-year-old at least had some concept of what was going on.

What 3- to 6-year-olds think of death

According to the US National Institute of Health, children aged 3-6 years still:

...see death as a kind of sleep; the person is alive, but only in a limited way. The child cannot fully separate death from life...The child may ask questions about the deceased (for example, how does the deceased eat, go to the toilet, breathe, or play?). Young children know that death is physical, but think it is not final.

The child’s understanding of death may involve “magical thinking”. For example, the child may think that his or her thoughts can cause another person to become sick or die.

(From the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health, ‘Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss –Patient Version’, 6 March 2013)

Tips for talking to them about death

So what are some things to keep in mind when talking to kindergarten-age kids about death? Here are some tips I’ve found helpful:

  • Don’t avoid the topic.
    Avoiding it might only serve to frighten the child or make them imagine things much worse than the truth. We all know how kids can sense when an adult is holding something back from them, and they may be coming up with wild and scary explanations why. 

  • Be honest.
    It’s ok to say “I don’t know” to your child’s questions. Death is, after all, one of the biggest mysteries of life. 

  • Use ‘easy’ opportunities to introduce the concept...
    ...like starting with bugs and flowers dying. It might be easier to explain the physical changes of death—that the body no longer works, they can’t eat or drink anymore, they can’t be fixed, etc.—than attempting to explain the metaphysical. 

  • Be prepared to answer questions over and over again.
    Kids need to process it and be reassured that the answers are consistent. 

  • Say ‘death’ and ‘die’; don’t use euphemisms......like ‘eternal sleep’, ‘gone away’ or ‘lost’, as they only confuse small children. They may even get scared, for example, that they will die if they go to sleep. 

  • Give information in small doses.And use simple words that they can understand. 

  • Be open to and acknowledge what the child is feeling......no matter what it is. Some kids may act out their grief, while others may not or appear even unaffected. 

  • If you are grieving, don’t be afraid to share...
    ...some of that with your child so they know it’s ok and normal. 

  • Reassure your child that it’s not their fault.
    Developmentally, children see the world as revolving around themselves and may come to think that they were somehow responsible for the death. 

  • Reassure your child that they are safe and will be taken care of, as always. 

    Evaluating your own beliefs

    Talking to my kids about death made me think about and evaluate my own beliefs about it. What would you say when your child asks you, “What happens after you die?”

    I guess this would be a good time as any to reopen the conversation with my now-older kids (and with my husband as well, to make sure we’re on the same page), as well as to introduce the idea to our 3-year-old.

    Online reading

    [This article was originally written for and published in BAMBI News, September 2018.]


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