How do you talk to your children about death?
How do you talk to your children about death?
If you ask me… you don’t.
But of course, that is an unrealistic attitude.
As much as we would like to keep our children innocent and worry-free, I know it is not possible. Death is a part of our life cycle. Children will encounter death whether we like it or not and there it is a good chance it will happen at a very young age. Be it through a movie, the loss of a pet, the loss of a family member or through the experience of their peers, as parents we will have to have that difficult conversation explaining what death is and how to deal with it. When you think about it, providing kids with a basic understanding of death is ultimately beneficial. Why? Because in the long run, not knowing can lead to confusion, fear and other issues.
Personally, the difficulty in talking to my daughters about death has been finding the correct words to use. It honestly terrifies me because I know that I will NEVER be fully prepared for what they are going to ask (and THEY WILL ask questions). Death is not an easy topic and I do not want my daughters to be confused, scared or worried. However, as much as I hate to admit it… it is a discussion that needs to happen. I just did not expect my daughters to be so young when we had it. Nonetheless, we have had three big conversations about death and my girls are only 5 and 7 years old.
The First Conversation…
The first conversation happened 3 years ago when my great-grandmother passed away. My daughters were 2 and 4 years old. At first, I did not know what to say. I mean, how do you talk to a toddler and preschooler about death? But I had to tell them something as we were going to take a road trip to attend the funeral services (she lived 3 hours away from us). With no baby sitters, we had no choice but to bring them with us. Unsure of what to say, I did a little research beforehand. I found articles to help prepare me for what they might say and how they might react. The following articles were very helpful:
I also read them a book called “Up in Heaven” written by Emma Chichester Clark.
From this first experience, the three most important things I learned were:
1. Keep is short and simple. Use words they can understand. They do not need to know every single detail as it may lead to them feeling overwhelmed and confused. It will also lead to more questions that you will have to figure out a way to answer.
2. Do not say the person is “sleeping.” Sleeping is something we do everyday. To tell the child that the person is “sleeping” can increase their fears about the people they love going to sleep or even themselves. I actually would have not thought of this point until someone mentioned it to me.
3. Kids are more aware of their surroundings than we think. While I know my girls did not fully grasp the concept of what was going on, they asked “is that why you are sad?” And to this day, every now and then they mention that they miss their great, great grandma so they are aware that death is permanent and makes you sad.
The Second Conversation…
Our second conversation revolving around death occurred earlier this year. My 5 year old was in her gymnastics class when her classmate told her that her mom died. Now, I knew that the little girls mom passed away from cancer… but I never thought she would tell my daughter. To say the least, I was completely caught off guard when on the drive home she started screaming and crying at the top of her lungs because she did not want me to die.
Once I was able to get her to take a few deep breaths and relax, I asked her why the thought had crossed her mind. It was then that she told me what her classmate told her. Not expecting this conversation, I had to think quickly. I explained to her that the little girl’s mom was really sick and that they tried to make her feel better but the medicine did not help her. I then emphasized that I had no plans on dying (even though she kept asking me to promise) and changed the subject/conversation to a happier one. As soon as we got home, I comforted her in big hugs.
The Third Conversation…
The third conversation is actually what inspired this post. Unfortunately, we are currently dealing with the death of my cousin which has been harder for me to deal with as it was completely unexpected. There were no signs that he would die of a heart attack at the age of 35. What makes it even harder is that he died on Father’s Day and leaves behind a beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters.
I will be honest, it took me 3 days before I told my daughters. It was actually scarier and more difficult for me to tell my daughters because they have actually met my cousin and would now have to associate death to someone they know. But after a phone conversation with my mother, I couldn’t hide my grief and cried. When they asked why I was crying, I told them the truth. I was sad because my cousin died. They looked at me and became sad.
Then all of the questions came….
When did he die?
Why did he die?
How did he die?
Where did he die?
What is a heart attack?
Did they try to help him?
What is a funeral home?
Where’s the body?
What do they do at the funeral home?
Are we going to the funeral?
Will he be put in the ground like great great grandma was?
Did he have a wife/kids/mom/dad/etc…?
Are his wife/kids going to get a new husband/father?
Am I going to die?
Are you going to die?
After answering all the questions, my girls hugged me. My oldest then got up, ran to the bathroom, got a baby wipe then returned and proceeded to wipe my face with the wipe. It was not a gentle wipe and I made them laugh by exclaiming she was going to take my nose off of my face. This was my attempt to bring some light to a difficult and sad situation. It worked for all of 3 minutes… that is until my little one started crying that she did not want me to die.
My heart broke into pieces because I know that I can’t promise her I will never die as I cannot predict the future. All I could do was hug her and emphasize that that was not part of my plans. I then changed the direction of the conversation to make it a happier one and let them get some screen time so that I could finish cooking dinner.
Talking To Children About Death
Talking to children about death is inevitable and never easy. Do not be afraid to have important discussions with your children. As much as we would like to protect them and keep them innocent, they will be exposed to difficult situations whether it is personally, through their peers or through the books/movies they read/see. The best thing to do is prepare yourself to the best of your ability but always expect the unexpected.
Do you remember the first time you became aware of death and/or had to tell your children?
Disclaimer: The opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own. I am a mom that loves to share my experiences in the hopes that others can learn from them (click here to learn more about me). I am not a mental health professional. If you need help, please make sure to reach out to your physician. If you are experiencing a true medical emergency, please call 911.
My name is Michelle and I am the wife of the hardest working man I know, the Mami of 3 beautiful and AMAZING girls and a Pathologists’ Assistant turned Stay at Home Mami turned Mompreneur of not one… or two… but three businesses! I am super excited to share my experiences and learn from you. As women/moms/entrepreneurs, we must stick together and support each other!