How Do You Talk to a Child About Death?


With apologies for the downer of a topic, but . . .

A married couple of our acquaintance will soon attend a memorial service for a woman who recently passed away, and of whom their young daughter was quite fond. They have not yet told their daughter of the woman’s death as they are at a loss as to how to proceed with such a discussion. I told them I would put the matter out for consideration among the Ricochetti, where much wisdom can reliably be found.

Their daughter is three years old, and this will be her first experience with the death of anyone she knows. What have you told your own children under these circumstances, and what questions were you met with? Your thoughts on this very important question will be much appreciated by all concerned.

There are 24 comments.

  1. Inactive

    It is important to remember that for preschoolers coping well typically means sticking to routine as much as possible. If this woman played a role that was part of a daily or weekly routine, her death will need to be addressed both in the context of the funeral and in the context of the activity (Ms. Sue won’t be at church this Sunday to hug you). For younger kids, describing death as an inability to do activities they understand can be helpful.

    As adults we tend to over-think and over-answer kid questions about death. Remember that a 3 year old still thinks the moon follows her car ; ) Simple, direct answers; routine and ritual cover a multitude of stammering adult statements.

    Also, it’s not uncommon (even if she attends the funeral) for a smaller child to ask to visit the deceased person, or what happened to their friend later, perhaps multiple times. Not a problem, just typical development.

    • #1
    • December 31, 2012 at 4:31 am
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  2. Inactive

    When our second child was in neo-natal intensive care we told her 3 year old brother “Your sister is very sick and we don’t know yet whether she’s going to come home with us or go home with Jesus.” That seemed to work.

    (BTW She pulled through and is with us today, 28 years later)

    • #2
    • December 31, 2012 at 6:04 am
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  3. Member

    Don’t say anything you don’t believe yourself and keep the explanation age specific.

    We had to deal with this a few years ago when our 17-year old son died and we still had 5 kids at home, ages ranging from 5 to 15. Based on his profession of faith we felt confident in telling the younger kids he was in heaven. But while his salvation is a wonderful thing, we still did a lot of crying because we missed him so much. It rocks a kid’s world to see the parents in that much pain, but I can’t agree with people who feel the need to shield the kids from it. I didn’t want my kids to grow up thinking – J. died and Mom and Dad never even cried for him. 

    I also don’t think it’s a good idea to make the death a taboo subject. We answered all kinds of questions, such as, can I call J. on his cell phone? With kids, be prepared for some touching and even funny moments. Our 5-year old, a few days after the funeral, demanded to know where his brother was.

    • #3
    • December 31, 2012 at 8:04 am
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  4. Member

    We patiently told him – in heaven. And he said, “no not that one, the one that’s in the dirt.” Try explaining that to a 5-year old. Also, our son died in another state and the first few days were filled with phone calls and preparations for getting his body back. When the call finally came that he was coming the next day I turned to one of the kids, age 7, and said, “J.’s body is coming back tomorrow.” Her response – “what about his head”?

    I’ve come to believe that if you can’t explain it to so a 5-year old can understand, you don’t understand it yourself. Keep the answers truthful, but age specific. Having a robust theology of dying, death, and the afterlife helps tremendously.

    • #4
    • December 31, 2012 at 8:11 am
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  5. Contributor
    Kim K.:

    Having a robust theology of dying, death, and the afterlife helps tremendously. · 1 minute ago

    Kim K.,

    I’m so terribly saddened to read about the death of your oldest son. I pray for continued comfort for you. And I thank you for the advice you offer. I couldn’t agree more with your last line.

    • #5
    • December 31, 2012 at 8:21 am
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  6. Reagan

    Life is opportunity.

    Death is the end of those opportunities.

    Jews and Christians agree on this much: death is when the soul returns to G-d.

    • #6
    • December 31, 2012 at 8:23 am
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  7. Inactive

    My mother died of heart failure when I was nine and a half, my brother eight and my sister six and a half. My father came home from the hospital and gathered us around him and told us. I think we did not know what it meant except that mom wasn’t coming home.

    Only over time did the immensity of death become recognizable in a family. A place to come to but no one to come home to. An echo or shadow of who once was but is now not to be found; and an empty place in the heart that remains open but unfilled.

    It is terrible and no matter what else happens, it must be faced.

    At some point down the line, someone must sit with that child and help her get it out of her system. The child’s mere expression met with some compassion will allow her to put it down and not have to pick it up again, relegating it to a fond memory of a missing friend.

    • #7
    • December 31, 2012 at 9:02 am
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  8. Inactive

    We talk to our daughters (just turned 6 and about to turn 5) about this fallen world regularly. So they already understand that death is a consequence of sin. We lost a dog a couple of years ago and my parents nextdoor had to bury one of their dogs. So the girls have experienced loss and they know why it happens. More importantly, they take comfort in their Baptism and the Resurrection to come.

    Dealing with the loss of a human friend would be harder, especially if the friend wasn’t a Christian. But they have the knowledge (framework) in place to make sense of it and they know where to find Comfort.

    • #8
    • December 31, 2012 at 9:29 am
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  9. Thatcher

    My family has been through a lot of death. Our baby daughter, my mother, and my best friend. We have two other children (8 and 6 at the time) and we simply told them about death as honestly as we could. It’s a lot to grasp, and it is clear they didn’t grasp all of it, but they got the important stuff. Might be too much for a three year old to get.

    • #9
    • December 31, 2012 at 9:37 am
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  10. Contributor

    As a pastor’s kid, I grew up around a fair amount of death. Our backyard backed up to a cemetery. We were brought to the homes of people near death and we were brought to their funerals. I’ve tried the same approach with my children — just explaining what cemeteries are, taking them to funerals of church members who have died.

    As for what to say to a 3-year-old, there’s some chance the child won’t exactly understand much of what’s happened. Start with the basics — “Our friend died. We won’t be able to see her any more.” Then just answer whatever questions come up. That will vary by child. Simple, short answers are better. If you’re in anguish over what to say, you’re probably over thinking it.

    • #10
    • December 31, 2012 at 9:48 am
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  11. Inactive

    It helps to remember that everyone has to deal with death sooner or later. We’ve all gone through it.

    It helps to remember, then, how we ourselves got through those first experiences. I was lucky. My first experiences of death were elderly family members, and I was part of a very Catholic family. We had wakes and funeral masses and other rituals. I learned how to behave (and really, how to respond emotionally) by watching my family during those rituals. Death was treated with solemnity and respect.

    I’ll say the obvious … at that age, it isn’t about passing along information to a young person. The young person will be having feelings that she never had before, and she won’t know what to do with them. So, the older generation has a sacred responsibility to teach the younger generation how to respond. They’ll learn; not by words, but by reactions.

    That’s why rituals are so useful. They teach emotion; they teach how to respond. They give emotions an outlet, so that people know what to do with them.

    • #11
    • December 31, 2012 at 10:02 am
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  12. Inactive

    When my grandmother passed away, I told my 4-year-old (at the time) that “when we die, we go back to God”. I was expecting questions, but none arose. My simple explanation seemed to be sufficient.

    • #12
    • December 31, 2012 at 10:12 am
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  13. Inactive

    If the child was very fond of this lady I think she should not be shut out of this. She needn’t be confronted harshly with it, but an adult on whose shoulder she will be comfortable crying should tell her gently and help her with the details. I lay pretty good odds that the child will want to go to the funeral, and if she clearly understands what it all means, I’m for letting her go. Small children can and do grieve, and death is a natural thing to them; it’s not easy for anyone. But they are robbed when we treat them as incapable of dealing with the truth. Imagine the child, a month from now, “Mommy, when can we visit Mrs X? She said next time we come I can have a ginger cookie, and I drew her another picture.” “Uh, I’m sorry honey, Mrs. X is … um … gone away … ask me again sometime, but not today”. When the child finally learns, she’ll be furious that she was not permitted the chance to “properly” say goodbye. I’m 100% in agreement with KCM above.

    • #13
    • December 31, 2012 at 10:30 am
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  14. Contributor
    Jack Dunphy Post author

    Many thanks for the thoughtful responses so far. I knew the Ricochetti would not disappoint.

    • #14
    • December 31, 2012 at 10:41 am
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  15. Inactive

    Just got home from a funeral of an 80 year old man, it was as natural as the snow falling outside the church. What you need to say is in there somewhere, it’s a natural . 

    My daughter went to a visitation last night for a high school classmate killed in a car wreck over the weekend , I don’t think that is natural as it wrenches the cycle out of rhythm . Words are very hard to find for that. 

    • #15
    • December 31, 2012 at 10:49 am
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  16. Member

    My mother always said “He/she went to live with God.”

    I am a big fan of taking children to cemeteries for unveilings and plain visits. Funerals too, after a certain age. (I was angry with my parents for many years because they would not let me attend my grandfather’s funeral when I was nine. Their excuse was that I am the eldest of my generation and the elders still thought of me as a kid.

    One of my sisters was killed in an accident and most of the nieces and nephews participated in the funeral and the unveiling, including shoveling dirt into the grave. These were 7-8 year olds. (The eldest of her own kids was not yet twelve.)

    But of course I am a genealogist, so I go to cemeteries for fun.

    • #16
    • December 31, 2012 at 11:04 am
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  17. Inactive
    Jack Dunphy: Many thanks for the thoughtful responses so far. I knew the Ricochetti would not disappoint. · 24 minutes ago

    I don’t know if the little girl was raised Catholic, Jack. But, if she was, please insist that prayers for the departed are a good thing for a child to learn. They are sadly neglected in our day.

    • #17
    • December 31, 2012 at 11:13 am
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  18. Contributor
    Jack Dunphy Post author
    Jack Dunphy: Many thanks for the thoughtful responses so far. I knew the Ricochetti would not disappoint. · 24 minutes ago

    I don’t know if the little girl was raised Catholic, Jack. But, if she was, please insist that prayers for the departed are a good thing for a child to learn. They are sadly neglected in our day. · 29 minutes ago

    I should have mentioned this. Yes, the family is Catholic, and prayers are part of their daily and nightly routine.

    • #18
    • December 31, 2012 at 11:46 am
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  19. Reagan

    How do we adults address the imponderable? How may a child understand?

     I observed, weak-kneed, the following:

    A Norman Rockwell setting. A great grandfather – a minister, has died. Gathered in a late-summer country cemetery, his descendants . . children, grandchildren, great grandchildren gather around the catafalque.

    My farmer brother-in-law presides over the assembled mourners. Birds sweep above cornfields, the air is sweet . . . . his daughter brings her 10 year-old son forward to be comforted by the rugged handsome grandfather. I’m waiting expectantly for this midwestern iconic moment of generational nurturing.

    The paterfamilias drops to one knee beside the catafalque and pulls the child toward him. Even the breeze pauses. We watch a timeless tableau. The grandfather points toward the casket. He speaks. “That will be you someday. Live your life accordingly.”

     I’ve wondered ever since, what doors closed in that child’s heart. I cannot help but to believe that some part of his emotional life, forever, veered in a direction it might not otherwise have gone.

    One could argue that it was a wise appraisal of what one might take from a death. For me, it was callous and brutal and no one visibly flinched.

    • #19
    • January 1, 2013 at 1:09 am
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  20. Member

    My mother died when I was just turning 4. She had out-of-control diabetes, and had gone blind. My relatives tell me that sometimes I acted as her guide. She spent her last week in the hospital, where I was not allowed to visit, but my aunt and uncle held me up in front of the hospital and told me to wave to her; I couldn’t see pick her out in the bank of windows, but no doubt she waved to me.

    A few days later, her casket was displayed in my grandmother’s farmhouse parlor; and my aunt took me into that room, drew a chair up to the casket that I could stand on, and explained that my mother had died – I don’t know what she actually said – but she added that I could come into the room whenever I wanted to and be with her. I also went to the funeral, a small country gathering in southern Indiana in 1952. I felt part of all the proceedings, and death was never a secret from me.

    • #20
    • January 1, 2013 at 1:29 am
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  21. Inactive
    Jack Dunphy: Many thanks for the thoughtful responses so far. I knew the Ricochetti would not disappoint. · 24 minutes ago

    I don’t know if the little girl was raised Catholic, Jack. But, if she was, please insist that prayers for the departed are a good thing for a child to learn. They are sadly neglected in our day. · 16 hours ago

    I’m a solid Protestant and pray daily for my wife who departed two years ago. Stiff doctrinal scruples be [email protected]#$ed — the lady deserves some peace after 26 years of marriage to me so I follow instructions and talk to the Father about what’s on my heart in the simplest possible terms. It’s also an important part, I think, of the long-term grieving process, “RIP” and all that. Though I regard catholicism as formalizing such things to excess I believe there’s a great deal of wisdom in the basic thought.

    • #21
    • January 1, 2013 at 4:15 am
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  22. Member

    At the risk of making light of a serious subject, I believe it was our own James Lileks who said on a podcast sometime back that hamsters exist for the sole purpose of teaching pre-teenage girls about death.

    • #22
    • January 1, 2013 at 8:30 am
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  23. Contributor
    Jack Dunphy Post author

    Again, many, many thanks for your heartfelt responses. Our prayers go out to those of you who endured the sorrows that inspired your advice. What a blessing it is to belong to the Ricochet community.

    • #23
    • January 1, 2013 at 8:37 am
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  24. Member

    The topic of death is much easier to confront with children when the topic of God has been an essential part of their childhood.

    • #24
    • January 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm
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