How and when do you explain death to a child?

Candice - posted on 07/14/2013 ( 4 moms have responded )




My daughter is three and a half and the pet of a friend passed away a month ago, then a good friend of my husbands passed away last week and my daughter wanted to go to the funeral too (we said no) but told her daddy's friend had died and he was going to say goodbye to his friend for the last time. Then the morning of the funeral we got a call and my grandfather is in the hospital from a heart attack, how on earth do u explain to a child about death without scaring the crap out of them? I want her to be able to talk about it with us but saying over and over "Ty's dead, Ty's dead" ( the pets name) in front of the sad little girl that lost her dog is realy not good. Help!


Mary - posted on 07/14/2013




Well, a fair chunk of it depends on two things: your family's belief systems, and your own comfort level with death.

My own daughter is 4.5. In these few short years, we have had to deal with more than a few deaths, including that of my own mother. Because of how I was raised, I have been taking her to funerals and viewings pretty much since birth. I personally am not bothered by them; I find nothing creepy, scary, or unsettling about a dead body, nor do I want my child to have any of those hang ups. While she is curious about it, and momentarily fascinated with the coffin, body, and flowers, that's about the extent of her interest in the whole thing while we have been at viewings. For the most part, she's more interested in playing with any other kids that might be there, the stash of coloring pages and snacks I have in my bag, the water cooler in the hallway, or when it's time to leave and "do something fun". No great trauma or distress whatsoever.

As far as the concept of death this age, kids are much less bothered or upset by it than we are. They just aren't capable of grasping the permanence of death, or all of the sorrow, regret, and loss that we feel as adults. Even with someone very close to them, they just don't linger over the loss the same way that we do, and bounce back to normal much more quickly than adults.

I do think that death is one area where those who are religious may have it a bit easier than those who are not. Heaven is a great (and easier) way to explain death to little kids. They are much more literal than we are, and being able to give a kid a destination for that deceased person makes it much easier for them to understand. Saying that someone is just "gone" is a bit less concrete, and harder for them to wrap their head around. I'm not really religious, and we do not attend any church, but I do use the heaven thing with her for now. Even so, no matter how many times I try to explain to my daughter that "so-and-so" is now in heaven, and can never come back, I'm not really sure just how much she gets it. Every so often, she still asks how long they have to stay, or why they had to go, or when she will see them again. Again, she's not overly upset during these conversations, just more curious and trying to understand it all.

I worry most about dealing with the loss of one of two older dogs. I think these will be harder for her to handle than any possible loss short of her father or I. WHile she is very close with her grandparents and other friends and family, none of them are an immediate part of her daily life the way that the dogs or my husband and self are. We have talked about the fact that one day, Charlie and Sam are going to have to leave us, and how much we will miss them. We've talked about doggy heaven. I have never been able to have these talks without crying. It does upset her a bit, and I've told her that it is okay to feel sad, to cry, and to miss someone that you love. I think it is important to not shy away from these realities, and to be honest about the harder feelings that accompany death and loss. Avoiding it, or dancing around it is not going to save her from eventually having to deal with it...and death is something we all have to come to terms with at some point in our lives. To me, shielding them entirely from this because of age does them no favors when that time comes.

Kate - posted on 07/17/2013




my daughter was told in her first week that I was going to get old and die and she was incredibly upset about it. I asked various parents their thoughts on how to explain it to her without making the situation worse and remembering not beign told anything as a child about death and crying myself to sleep (when eventually I dropped off as I was fearful I might nto wake up!) each night! Now my hubby and I aren't religious so everytime someone came back with tell her about angels and heaven it went against my instincts .... after a lot of soul searching and considerations (there are books about it all over the internet) I decided to explain it as follows ..... 'we grow old, we get tired, sometimes our bodies break so we move out and let someone else move in to the world ... it seems to have worked for the minute as she is quite accepting (they are far more resiliant than we give them credit) it may also be worth for each death to go with your daughter to purchase a flower or tree to plant in the garden and name it after the person has died so she has somewhere to go and talk to them? x


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Tami - posted on 07/19/2013




My son's godfather passed away when my son was just a year and a half. Since this man was a regular person in our lives, I had to figure out how to explain why he wasn't around anymore. My faith helped me and I simply told my son that his papa was in heaven because the Lord needed him more than we do. Now every time we lose a pet or death is brought up because of something he watched, I tell him that they are in heaven with the Lord. If that is what you believe, then it may work for you too. My son seems to understand so far.

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