Death Explained

Esther - posted on 01/17/2011 ( 17 moms have responded )




My son recently turned three and we went to Holland to celebrate his birthday (and X-mas) with our relatives there. During our vacation there we also spent some time with my husband's grandfather and it was clear to us that his (mental) health is deteriorating rapidly. I'm pretty sure our next visit home is going to be for his funeral. This caused me to start thinking about how I will explain this to my son. My husband's family is atheist whereas my family is religious. I would say at this point both of us would probably qualify ourselves as agnostics. However, my knee-jerk reaction (because of my upbringing) is to still use terms like "heaven" etc. when talking about death to children, whereas in my husband's family dead is dead. I honestly haven't the first clue how I'm going to approach this with my son when the time comes.

Aside from the religious vs non religious aspect, how did you all explain death to your kids? Is it like sleeping and never waking up (wouldn't that cause them to be scared to go to bed?)? How did you frame it?


Tracey - posted on 01/18/2011




This is a social story used for autistics, it might be useful
Everyone and everything that is alive dies at some time.

Death is part of life.

When someone dies, everything inside that person stops.

The heart stops.

The breathing stops.

They cannot feel any hurt.

They cannot feel hot or cold.

When someone dies, they do not have any life insider their body anymore.

Just the body is left...

like a peanut shell without the peanut.

When someone dies people feel sad.

Feeling sad is OK.

People feel sad because the person that died is gone.

When someone dies people cry.

Crying is OK.

Sometimes after you cry you don't feel as sad.

In a few days or weeks you may not feel as sad.

Time helps you feel better.

It's OK to feel better.

User - posted on 01/18/2011




There's a book called "Waterbugs and Dragonflies" by Doris Stickney, which explains the permanence of death to children. We used it with my 4 and 7 year old when my Mum died, and it was really helpful.

Krista - posted on 01/17/2011




I definitely wouldn't use the sleeping analogy, because you're right -- it'll make him scared to go to bed.

I guess my plan is to say that we have bodies, but we also have our thoughts and feelings and likes, and all of the things that make us "us". And I'd say that our bodies can get hurt, or wear out from age, and they no longer work. Our hearts stop beating and our brains stop working, and everything just stops and it never starts back up again. So our bodies go into the ground. But the other stuff...the stuff that makes us "us" -- nobody knows what happens. Some people call it a "soul", and think that when we die, we go to a place called "heaven". Other people think that the energy that was in our bodies gets sent back out into the world. And other people think that nothing happens -- we just wink out, and don't know any more after that. The thing is, nobody actually knows for sure. We can only guess. So that's why it's so important to be a good person and to love each other and to enjoy life, because we really don't know what happens after we die.

You might need to adjust for age, as that's pretty in-depth for a three-year-old. But my advice would be to kind of start in that general direction, and then just answer Lucas' questions as honestly as you can as they come up.

Tara - posted on 01/17/2011




When my ex's dad died I talked to the girls about life cycles. We talked about the annuals we plant in the window boxes and how after the summer, they die. We talked about the forest and how things are always being born and always dying. We talked about how when someone/something has lived a long time or becomes very sick their body starts to die just like the leaves in the fall or the flowers etc. and when their body can't keep going they die. When they are dead, they are going back to the earth. We have talked about the natural cycle of life, birth and death. And how things go back into the earth after their time alive, so that future generations can grow.
They wanted to know why people had to die. So we talked about how many people there are in the world, and what would happen if nobody ever died. There wouldn't be enough food, or water or space for everyone, so just like everything else in nature, people die and in so doing, make room for new people.
It's a hard one, sometimes I think religious people have an easier time explaining death, there is no finality like there is for atheists. For religious people they can say "he will watch you from Heaven." "he's with God now" "you will see him in heaven" etc. etc.
Not so easy when you don't believe in an afterlife or aren't sure enough to tell your child your own feelings about what happens after death. When my kids ask me, I tell them the truth, no one knows what happens if anything when you die.

Krista - posted on 01/18/2011




This reminds me of when I was little, and Mr. Hooper from Sesame Street died. And the show really struggled with what to do about it. They could have just had him retire, or move away, but they decided to take the opportunity to sensitively teach kids that yes, sometimes people die. They consulted with a horde of child psychologists and grief experts, and aired the show on Thanksgiving weekend so that the parents would be around to answer their kids' questions (as opposed to them watching it while in daycare or with a sitter).

They handled it beautifully. It was simple, direct and kind, and didn't talk down to the kids, but also didn't overwhelm them with a lot of superfluous detail.


View replies by

Sara - posted on 01/18/2011




I think I'm just going to talk Krista E. into coming and explaining death to my kids.

In all seriousness, I tend to believe that we just stop when we die. I think I'll just explain it that everyone has their time here on earth and when our time is over, then we die. No one is really sure what happens after that, but some people believe in heaven and some people don't...

[deleted account]

Loureen- That is very true but its not something we do because it is too confusing for Keira. We sent her to visit her Grandparents and they said her moms spirit is alive and that created a huge issue for us because all she heard was her mom is alive and didn't understand why she wasn't here.

[deleted account]

I haven't read yet but wanted to say thank you Esther, for posting this! Steve & I were actually JUST talking about this topic the other day! I'm gonna go read :)

Charlie - posted on 01/17/2011




For example you shouldn't relate death to sleep, or say their spirit is alive. Small children take things like that to literally.

I have to disagree with the spirit part , spirit being energy , while I agree some children take things literally some children can fully comprehend the idea of energy especially those that are more in tuned to it , it is all in the words you choose to explain it with .

You just have to know how much your own child can handle really .

[deleted account]

When my son passed away I couldn't bring myself to say dead is dead, the kids think he's in heaven. My step daughter lost her mom and she thinks she's in heaven. I did a lot of research on this subject because my kids have experienced these losses and the best thing to do is keep it simple and as honest as possible.

For example you shouldn't relate death to sleep, or say their spirit is alive. Small children take things like that to literally.

Edit to add-I really like the way Loureen handles it too, I wish I would have thought of that at the time.

Kate CP - posted on 01/17/2011




This what I told my 3-4 year old when our dog died (not the same as a relative, but it works for humans):

Sometimes our bodies stop working. The doctors try everything they can to fix it, but sometimes a body is just so old or broken that you can't fix it and that's when some one dies. This means we won't ever see them again or talk to them again. We will miss them, and love them, and wish they were here with us. But we can't ever see them again because they died. It's okay to be sad and to cry and to even be angry because they died. Mommy and Daddy may cry or get angry because we miss that person/pet and that's okay.

As my daughter got the idea that our dog wasn't ever coming back I introduced the idea of the dog's spirit not being in the dog's body any more because his body was too sick to hold it. The part of the dog (or human) that we loved is gone and they can never come back.

I never told her the dog was in heaven with God (even though we believe in God) because I didn't want her thinking we could visit the dog some day. I never told her he went to sleep and didn't wake up. And I've NEVER told her that we'll see him again some day. That would just confuse the hell out of her.

Charlie - posted on 01/17/2011




It was hard with Cooper because he was only two when Dad died but he knew he was sick and he was there when he died he even held his hand and talked to him after he had passed .
We said " grandfather has gone now ( it had to be simple ) "
He said " where grandfa " I told him grandfather is everywhere in the sun , the trees and the ocean , when mummy misses grandfather I go to the beach and dive in th sea "

I think death is important , I don't hide it , it is a fact of life and often young children handle it a lot better than adults .

Since then there have been opportunities to talk more about death like when he finds dead bugs or the dead rabbit we found .

To me my father is all around , his energy is anyway , it is everywhere and as he gets older I will be able to explain my beliefs more in depth .

Rosie - posted on 01/17/2011




i was just wondering about this a couple days ago. how do i explain what happens when i don't believe in heaven. i can't say grandpa kemp is in heaven cause i don't believe it, but i also don't want to just say we die and then rot in the ground. can't wait to see more answers here!! :)

Mrs. - posted on 01/17/2011




My child isn't old enough to understand. I remember when I was little, before a death in my family, my dog died. When someone did die after, it was explained that it would be like when my puppy died and if we remembered all the good things about that person-they would never be really gone (just like the dog). My parents said something like, when you think about your puppy does it sometimes make you feel like he is still there and told me it was the same with the family member.

Join Circle of Moms

Sign up for Circle of Moms and be a part of this community! Membership is just one click away.

Join Circle of Moms