Talking to Young Kids about Death

Posted August 11, 2011 by

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Aside from explaining about sex, death discussions are the most difficult to have with children, in my opinion.

My parents had to explain death to me when my maternal grandpa passed away the year I turned 7. Afterward, I thought his shiva was a party where everyone ate lots of food and talked about him. My (maternal) grandma became so upset when I called it a party, and I didn’t understand why at the time. That same year, our dog died and I didn’t understand that she wasn’t just sleeping. It took a long time for that to register with me as something more permanent. I think my parents always treated death as something peaceful and inevitable, so that made the topic easier for me to handle.

Recently E asked where Papa Morrie, my late paternal grandpa, was and I told him he lived far away from my grandma now, but was in sh’mayim (the sky) with Hashem (G-d). After giving it some thought, he said “Nana needs to get me a new grandpa!”

Of my husband and myself, I think I’ll end up being the one to explain death to my kids, but I’ve been handling it with kid gloves so far. For a while, I didn’t tell E about my grandpa’s passing two years ago because I didn’t feel he was ready to understand it yet. Later, we talked about my maternal grandparents, both who passed away long before he was born. He kept asking about my paternal grandparents and I finally had to explain that one of them was living with Hashem, along with my maternal grandparents. He sometimes asks about great-grandparents so I had to explain that both my husband’s and my own  also lived with Hashem. According to E, Hashem lives in California because that’s very far away.

I still think the concept of Heaven is not registering with him yet, but he does understand that my grandfather is no longer living with my grandmother, and that’s probably enough for now.

How do you talk to your young kids about death? How have they handled it?

About

Melissa A. and her husband have 2 young sons, E and M, and a new baby daughter. Melissa's son E has hearing loss and wears a cochlear implant. Melissa works as an administrative assistant for a non-profit and also runs a bullying prevention group and a book-related fan group, in addition to blogging for Empowering Parents. You can check out Melissa’s personal blog here.

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  1. Andrea (Edit) Report

    I just love what Robin said and the way she explains things to her children. My mother and mother-in-law both died during my first year of marriage so our children have “grandma angels”. We, however, do not candy coat things. My daughter is 3 and asks questions and it is always hard. We told her that my mother-in-law died in a car accident (and that is why it is always important to wear seat belts). She then asked how my mother died and she took her own life – well obviously I am not going to tell that to a 3 year old. I think I will know when the day comes that she can handle that information but have wondered many times when and how that conversation will go. Death is never a comfortable topic but I think children will be however comfortable with it as their parents are when they explain it. Children can sense things like that and usually adopt their parent’s feelings on important topics.

    I’ve told my children about their grandmas from the day they were both born. Told them I’m sorry they don’t get to have them; that they deserve them and that their grandmas would have been crazy about them. What I tell them about their grandmas is all they will ever have of them so I try to honor the memory of those special women. Thanks for writing this. Something I have to deal with A LOT, and will continue to deal with, well, forever.

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  2. CitySitter (Edit) Report

    Trust me, you are not alone. There are many adults who struggle with explaining death to their children. It’s not exactly the easiest topic to talk about, so it’s expected that you have trouble in doing so. Personally, when explained death to children, I would recommend just telling them that the person is resting in Heaven and that though we can’t see them right now – that one day we will be able to see them again. If the child asks what Heaven is, explain it to them. Keep everything straight forward – simplicity is best. They will understand as they grow older what death is and what it means. All that you can do is your best at explaining, and that will be enough.

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  3. Brittany Roshelle (Edit) Report

    Death is such a hard topic for children. Thankfully, I didn’t have any family deaths as a child to go through (as most who were old had already passed by the time I came along). My husband just lost his Grandfather. Death is never easy to handle, he was a great friend of mine and almost like a 2nd Grandfather to me. I’m so glad we don’t have children yet and I have no idea how I will handle the topic when it comes along. I second everyone else’s comments: I’ll be brief about it!

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  4. SueO (Edit) Report

    My children (aged 3 and 7) are dealing with the loss of their father. Their understanding is beyond comprehension, they are my support through this difficult time. I have been honest with them, included in the whole process. It is best to be honest with them so that they too can work through the grieving and not face it at a later stage in their life.

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  5. MamaChanel (Edit) Report

    In all likelyhood, the concept of heaven is not registering with your son because children think in concrete terms, not in the abstract (ie: heaven vs. California). They also struggle with processing euphamisms we use to shield them from the hard facts that death is permanent, cannot be reversed, and happens to all living things. Things like, “grandpa’s gone to a better place” won’t make any sense because that’s too abstract. Try being straight forward with your son. Tell him when someone is dead, that means their heart stops beating, express that it is forever and irreversible. In our culture, we have a practice of death-denial, seen in our obsession with youth, and degredation of the old. With this practice, death becomes something to be feared, it makes us uncomfortable that it exists, but the irony is that death comes to us all, there is no one who has not been touched by death. It has become the elephant in the room we do not speak of. Talking about it frankly with children makes it easier for them to understand. When my uncle, who was very close to my 6 year-old twin daughters committed suicide, the conversation was not easy for anyone involved. I chose to not disclose the “how” in this case, but was as honest as possible in telling them he had an accident. My logic behind that was that the implications of suicide ARE too complicated for a youngster to understand, but the concept of death is not above their comprehension. When their Paw-paw passed, my grandfather, the talk was much easier, citing the simple fact that when people get old, they die. I feel like many parents are uncomfortable facing their own mortality, and this is magnified on a societal level, so we assumne kids will struggle with it. Remarkably, kids are resillient, they will have to experience many deaths in their own lives, from small ones like the loss of a job, to the loss of us, their parents, someday. The earlier we are able to be honest and open with them, the better.

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  6. Dr. Jim (Edit) Report

    Children can handle just about anything adults can handle, only generally better. They are incredibly concrete, however. This is in contrast to the language we use to explain death to “soften” the impact: “Eternal Rest,” “Going Home,” “They passed,” and “Gone to a Better Place.” Although we adults know the “better place,” kids tend to personalize it, thinking the deceased chose a place on purpose that DIDN’T include them.

    I remember a mother telling me that she explained to her daughter that “God needed Grandpa to be with Him.” To that the girl said, “Well, I needed him, too!”

    I do think we have to be careful, and simple. When my wife’s mother died, my grandson was four years old. My daughter explained her death to him using a glove. The hand was the essence of the person that lived in the body; the glove was the container, the body of that person. Pretty good, huh? She went on to explain how, although the person is not in that body any longer, we always honor the body and treat it with respect. She (my daughter) took him to his great-grandmother’s viewing at the funeral home, and he handled it wonderfully. He’s 11 now, and remembers it all.

    It’s a blessing, really, if a child can attend a funeral of someone they knew, but was not closely attached to. It gives them an opportunity to gain a valuable skill of knowing what goes on and what you do (especially when there’s a dead person in the room).

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  7. Robin (Edit) Report

    Having lost a younger brother while my children are still quite young. And, losing my father, their beloved Pappy, a few years later, we had a necessity to begin dialoging about death while the kids were still pre-school aged. I explain to them how all of us
    are on earth temporarialy, and that our final destination of Heaven is our true and permanent home. That, if everyone lives good, honest, and inspiring lives, we will all eventually be together again. I tell my kids that people grieve because we miss our loved ones, but beneath the tears, we are happy for them having moved on to such a beautiful, loving, peacful home. We talk about how transiet our lives are, and that all we take with us when we die is the love in our hearts, and the memories created. How everything else is temporary. This seems to aid in keeping the kids focused on that which is truly important, and that all material posessions will fade and loose meaning. But, love, sincerity, and peace are meant to be everlasting. Of course we still have our parenting challenges, but the roots are planted firm as we teach them that life is only meant to be temporary, and we never know when one of us is gong to be called home.

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  8. Linda Watson (Edit) Report

    Interesting post–thanks for sharing it. I seems to me that the best time to explain death to a child is NOT at the time of a death. I realize this can’t always be controlled but if death is one of those things you talk about now and then, maybe your child will have a little more background against which to weigh the report that a grandparent or some other person they know has died. Actually, until maybe the age of 9, children tend to inhabit a kind of magical world in that they are surrounded by things they can’t explain–everything from telephones to bean sprouts. Death is one more mystery. Eventually when plants and animals get old they die. It is part of how this world works. That includes old people who can get so weak and sick that they may be happy to die and be finished with at least this stage of the life available to them (depending upon your belief system). You were lucky to have parents who regarded death as something basically inevitable and peaceful. I hope others can pick up on that cue and do the same.

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  9. Nechama (Edit) Report

    We pass two cemeteries every day to and from school, so the death conversation has come up a lot over the last year. I’ve tried to be very honest, straightforward, and, above all, brief! I don’t know that kids can really absorb the concept of death. Most of us adults still have issues with it!

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  10. Renee Lowe (Edit) Report

    Personally I told my kids that the person (or animal or whatever living creature) that died has moved on to a better place… If they ask me where then I explain a little about death. Like your parents, I try to convey a sense of calm and peace to my kids especially about this topic.

    Reply

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