Tucking my five-year-old into bed, I heard the tremble in her voice as she asked, “Mommy, will I die?”
Her question caught me off guard. “Yes … someday ... hopefully a very long time from now.”
Her tears flowed as she crawled into my lap and nestled her face in my chest. After several minutes, she looked up and sniffled, “I am scared if I die, no one will remember me.”
Death is part of life, yet it can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, especially with our children. Experts say, however, that making death part of normal conversation is vital for children of all ages, especially young children who don’t yet grasp the concept.
Developmental Stages Of Understanding Death
It is not uncommon for your toddler to ask questions regarding death. For many young children, the concept is confusing, and they may not yet have the vocabulary to fully express how they feel. To them, death is mostly temporary, reversible, and impersonal. Because toddlers like tangible and concrete experiences, they may ask the same questions several times as they try to grasp an understanding and feel secure.
Between the ages of five and nine, most children begin to see that all living things eventually die, although they usually don’t relate it to themselves. As children mature into adolescence, they begin to fully understand that death is a part of the circle of life and that they too will die someday.
While these are general guidelines, it is important to remember that all children develop at different rates and that each child experiences life uniquely.
Some common questions that children ask are:
- Will I die? Whether a natural curiosity or a result of having someone close to them pass away, children may wonder if this will happen to them, too.
- What does it mean to die? Younger children do not yet understand the concept of dying and older children may have specific questions about what this means.
- When will you die? When the permanency of death is not fully understood, children may think death means separation, and separation from a parent can feel frightening. One way to respond to this question is to get underneath its meaning by asking questions like, “Are you worried that I won’t be here to take care of you?” Listen and offer a truthful, yet supportive answer.
- It is my fault? Young children are often in the ego part of self and may develop some misguided blame. Reassure your child that death is nothing they cause or prevent.
While there are no perfect answers, the most important tool in answering your child’s questions is to answer directly and as patiently and simply as possible.
Tools For Talking About Death With Children
1. Create safety. Children are sensitive barometers of emotion and tremendous observers. When they notice we are uncomfortable, they too can become uncomfortable. Experts say that when we choose not to discuss something with our children, they hesitate to ask questions. When we send the message that a topic is unsafe to discuss, it increases stress, anxiety, and worry in our children. We make it easier for our children to talk to us when we are open, honest, and at ease with our own feelings.
2. Use concrete and familiar examples. It is important to explain death in simple terms for young children. One way to do this is by explaining it as the absence of life functions - when people die, they do not breathe, eat, talk, think; when dogs die they do not bark or run anymore; dead flowers do not grow or bloom anymore. Reinforce the concept that all living things eventually die, and this cycle makes room for new things to join us on earth.
“Try to help your child understand death before it touches her life significantly,” says Ashleigh Schopen, a Certified Child Life Specialist. “Start by pointing out some of the cycles in nature. I recently talked to my 3-year-old about our houseplant that died,” says Schopen. “I told her it’s no longer living and what that meant: It can’t take up water anymore or grow with sunlight. And I made sure to add that it can’t come back again because the permanence of death is something that young kids have the hardest time understanding.” “Showing your child the butterfly that died on the porch, or fruit that was alive but now looks rotten, are other ways to bring up the topic,” suggests Judith Simon Prager, Ph.D., a clinical homeopath and coauthor of Verbal First Aid. “The more often you talk about death—and what it means—the less scared and confused your child will be when it happens to a family member,” says Schopen.
3. Listen to their needs. No matter how children cope with death or express their feelings, they need sensitive and nonjudgmental responses from adults. Careful listening and observing are important ways to learn how to respond appropriately to a child’s questions and needs.
4. Share beliefs. Explain to your child that people have varying beliefs when it comes to death and what comes after. Be open in offering your beliefs and allow them to choose their own. It's okay to say to your child, “I don’t know the answer to that”. Children respond to this honesty beautifully and feel connected in our openness towards them. It helps them feel better about not knowing everything, also. In discussing death, we may find different answers at different stages in our life or grieving process, and that’s okay, too.
5. Revisit. Children learn through repetition so they may need to go over this several times. A child may immediately ask more questions, and others may be silent, then wish to revisit the subject again later. As time passes and children have new experiences, they may seek further explanations, or space to share their thoughts with you.
As my daughter asked further questions, I shared with her my beliefs - that death is when we leave our physical body, yet who we really are - energy/soul/spirit - never dies. Instead, our energy shifts into something new. And when someone we love dies, we can carry memories of them in our hearts and revisit these memories anytime.
My daughter snuggled in close and closed her eyes, and I could hear the sounds of her flowing breath as she drifted off to sleep. And while death is part of our journey, at that moment, I leaned in and felt gratitude for life.