Food For Thought Friday: Talking To Your Children About Death

Wow, I've been a real downer this week! Sorry, I just thought after yesterday's post about what you can do if someone you know is suffering a loss, it was natural to talk about how to bring your kids into the fold.  I promise more fun and frivolity next week.  This is an important topic, because the conventional wisdom has been to keep kids out of the loop on the whole death gig for as long as you can put it off.  I understand the temptation to do that, but kids can handle so much more than we give them credit for. Conversations about death do not have to be the big "sit down and talk" type. They can be larger ongoing conversations.

Death has always been a topic at our house.  People have asked, "when will you tell your kids about their big sister who died?" My answer is "right now." We tell them what is appropriate for them to know at any given time.  Death is a HUGE concept even for adults, for children, it is even bigger. So, we use terms that they understand to their ability, and then answer questions as they come.

Fall is a great time to talk about death because that's what the season is all about. If you are a Christian type, the combination of Spring and Easter are a perfect time to talk about the concept of rebirth and heaven. Talking about the death of a loved one, or of someone you know, or even of someone that the world knows are all ways to introduce the concept.  I have found that kids process death in such an open and honest way, they are not afraid as we both assume that they will be and as we are ourselves.  When another child asks me who Brady is, or asks me about death, I always check with the parents before I tell their child about death. I believe that it is up to each family to decide how they want to introduce the topic, and I don't want to impede on their process, but the conversation usually goes something like this.

Me: Brady is my baby girl who died when she was very small.
Child: What does that mean?
Me: It means that her body stopped working and we had to say goodbye to her.
Child: Will you get to see her again?
Me: I believe that someday, in a long long time, when my body stops working too, that I will get to see her again. But that won't be for a long long time, and I miss her very much.
Child: [usually at this point the child says something amazing that brings tears to my eyes, or else they change the subject to cars or princesses or something else].

It's actually quite a simple conversation, and a typical one that I've had with my own child, and many other preschool aged children.  They frequently don't react by putting themselves in the situation like we think they might (that really is something adults do far more than the children. The children tend to be more empathetic rather than sympathetic. It's really beautiful), but sometimes a child may say, "am I going to die?" And the answer I use is, "not for a very very very very long time." (The more times you say "very" the more likely that they are already thinking about cars or princesses).

Death is a part of life, and as adults, we get so jammed up it because we don't totally understand it. In many ways, children are far better able to accept it for what it is at the youngest ages than we are as adults.  When my four-year-old was three, we started buying fish. I say that we started buying fish, because we had to keep buying fish to replace the ones that died.  Each time a fish died, the four-year-old would say, "why did Carl die?" (Each fish was named Carl), and I would say, "I don't know..." and he would say, "I'll miss him." And that was it.  The point I'm making is that often we are scared of other people's grief anyway, and that has to do with our fear of inadequacy in handling it. There is nothing to be afraid of. There is no ONE right answer, there is no ONE right way, it is a process for all of is.  I only encourage the conversation because it makes the process that much easier for children to grasp if understand it at their level and process as they grow, rather than being offered the concept all at once and forced to make sense of it.

The most important thing: "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer. Especially because there is so much about death that we really don't know.

Head on over to It's My Baby Blog, Welcome Baby Care's blog about parenting to find some excellent resources, including children's books.

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  1. We've had many similar conversations. Sarah is still a part of our family, even though she's not here. And since we haven't hidden it away, it's not a traumatic thing for them. Again, thank you for talking about this.

  2. I agree that you have to talk to your children about the death of siblings. (My twins were my first pregnancy) My living children know about their brothers who are in heaven. They go to the cemetary with me. They get to pick out the flag or decorations we bring. They say prayers for their brothers out of their own need, not my urging.

    It is heartbreaking and a relief all at the same time that they know. But I couldn't keep it a secret. It wouldn't be fair to them that the family has some big secret they can't know about.

    My son (now 10) will often talk about the brothers and comment on how if they lived, we would have a really big family. He is being sweet and sincere about it.

    He and his sister often have questions. I tell them as openly as I can and with what I feel they need to know. No sugar coating, but in simple terms. Usually something like, "Your brothers died in mom's tummy. I don't know why, sometimes God decides things we don't understand." They even like to look at the pictures we have.

    One of the most heartbreaking comments he has ever made, makes me smile and cry all at the same time. He said this with the total sincerity only a small child can use, but he would say, "Mom, aren't you glad that I didn't die in your tummy?" My answer is always a resounding YES and a gigantic hug! I love that kid.

    Thanks for your posts as always!

  3. I have just a few very concrete memories about my early experiences with the concept of death. I remember attending my great grandpa's burial, and I remember my mother being so angry with his death that she kicked a hole in her bedroom door. But mostly I remember hearing the story-- some years later-- of my sister Katie at the visitation.

    Katie is about 3 years younger than me, so she must have been about 3 when Grandpa Pete died. The story goes like this: At the visitation, Katie (not knowing any better) kissed the body of our late great grandpa. I imagine she was startled by how cold he was. Moreover, my great grandma Alice went up to Katie and told her that Grandpa Pete was sleeping. Katie, quite startled, looks at her and says, "Grandma Alice, Grandpa Pete DIED!" as if no one had explained it to the poor woman. It seems pretty clear from this that young children are more capable of understanding and accepting death than we often give them credit for. At 3, Katie may not have had much experience with death, or known what to expect, or what social behaviors were in order, but she did understand that death was different from sleep, and that our Grandpa Pete wasn't coming back.

    As a passing thought, I happened to wonder how my mother or sister would feel about me sharing this story. Next, I wondered what it would be like to grow up having my mother tell stories about me on a blog. Then I remembered that because my mom is a pastor, she's been telling stories about us in her sermons for about 15 years. You've probably heard several such stories, like the one where my sister got lost driving around the metro area for over an hour, during what should have been a 15-20 minute drive home. :P

  4. I wish people would be more comfortable talking with kids about death - at their level.

    I have worked with kids my whole life and through that my mom had many honorary grandkids. At my mom's wake, one of them came up and asked me if "Jan" was in the box. (She had been cremated and was in a small wooden box.)

    The adult I was chatting with totally freaked out that this four year old came up and asked me if Jan was in the box. I was startled at how upset the adult seemed.

    I just calmly answered, "Yes, Jan is in the box, but her soul is in heaven." The little girl just smiled and walked away. She wasn't asking for the gory details, just wanted to be sure.

    Kids just need the basics. Give them the basics, just like you mentioned.


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