With all the terrible things we hear on the news—from natural disasters, conflicts, wars to mass unmarked graves of Indigenous children, being honest about the dark stuff can be really difficult. How do we share truth with them, and answer curious questions in an un-traumatizing, age-appropriate way? Terrible, newsworthy deaths are one thing, but what about your aging parents? What about the lovely ninety-year-old lady at Church who your children love?
One of the tricky subjects we face with our kids, sooner or later, is death. Sometimes we can laugh it off, buck up, and share the difficult truths. Other times we might be paralyzed with fear of saying the wrong thing.
Dying is a natural and inevitable part of life. It may be sooner rather than later that a child has to face this complex truth. Somewhere between a squished bug, a flushed goldfish, or any number of Disney Classics, your little one will be introduced to death. Death is hard for the living, we struggle with missing people and memories which give us pain. But grief is a sign of our love. We cannot love each other without knowing that someday we will lose that love.
Kids are really curious about death, and we need to make space for them to explore those wondering questions in a supportive way.
My daughter Bea attended her first funerals during the 3rd year of her life. At the first, she had a number of logical and predictable questions which I felt mostly prepared to answer. The second funeral we went to as a family, for a well-known parishioner from our church community, had an open casket. This experience was transformative for Bea as she had an unexpectedly direct visual experience with death. For weeks after the service she talked about it, and it wove into the fabric of her play. The statement which repeated itself over and over was, “When you are old and sick you die and lose your legs”. We were amused more than concerned, but it took us a long time to understand the reason why she was saying this. The casket had hidden her legs, and because Bea couldn’t see them, she thought they were gone. Bea developed her own understanding, based on observation, that one enters the afterlife legless.
Talking about death is a complex and personal matter. The way you choose to describe things would be different for different families with different faith backgrounds. What I think is important is honesty and using clear language. A lot of the ways we choose to talk about death in our culture use euphemisms which can be confusing to little kids. If you talk about Grampa as being “asleep” or “gone to a better place” it can be tricky for a literal-brained child to process.
That shouldn’t rule out a conversation about after-life or Heaven. In general, when my children ask me impossible questions about what happens when we die, I support the worldview they have already started developing. We talk about connections that last beyond death and God’s love surrounding us so we are never alone.
As with every hard conversation we can have with kids, there is lots of wisdom by those who have lived it already, and consequently, there are many great children’s books to help open the door on this topic in a gentle and age-appropriate manner. Different situations might warrant a different type of book. The death of a beloved pet or a cherished Grandparent will be different to talk about than a miscarriage or an infant death. None of these situations are easy-breezy, and it is certainly challenging to think about when you might be feeling sad or grieving a loss yourself.
As much as we want to protect our kids from the scary and sad parts of life, they are woven into the rich fabric of our collective stories. The best we can aim to do is help our kids navigate the hard things so that they grow and learn and emerge stronger. And a good snuggle on the couch with a storybook will only help on that journey.