Dr. Corinne Masur
Just before Halloween a mother came to our parent group with the disturbing news that a mom in her neighborhood had been killed in an automobile accident. After telling her 5 year old daughter about this, her daughter asked, “Can we still have Halloween? Aren’t we supposed to be sad?”
The mother in our group started to cry as she told us this story. She said she could barely think about the situation – it brought up such feelings of vulnerability for her. What if SHE were to die and leave her daughter? She began to think about what she should tell her partner about what her daughter likes and doesn’t like to eat, her daily habits, the morning and evening routines, and what time she should be in bed. She could not stand the idea of her daughter being without her.
There are certain subjects that are just so painful that we want to shield our children from them. And yet, as good parents, we know we cannot.
So how DO we explain to our young children about death? And how DO we tolerate our own feelings of vulnerability when we think of the possibility of our own deaths and the consequent unintentional abandonment of our children?
Both are so scary.
But young children are not as ignorant about this subject as we think. They observe the natural world and they know, as early as 2 or 3 that bugs die and animals die and in fact, they are very curious about the subject. It is not unusual for them to ask questions – lots of questions – about death.
Often it is harder for the parent to think about this than it is for the child. The parent knows the permanency of death – but the young child does not. And it is the parent’s job to educate their children about difficult subjects like death by telling children the truth – but in a simple way.
Young children – two and three year olds – know that things die. What they don’t know is that once dead, an animal or a person cannot become alive again. So when you talk to your young child, this is something to include – for example, you can say, “When someone dies they can’t breathe or eat or talk anymore. And once they die they cannot become alive again.” One thing NOT to say is that death is like sleeping. Parents are often tempted to say this. But death is not like sleeping and if children are told that it is, they may develop fears about going to sleep.
Sometimes, once the basic questions are answered the next question is: “Are you going to die, Mommy (or Daddy)?”
The parent’s job is to walk a narrow line between providing the child with the information he or she wants and causing the least amount of anxiety in the child. So, to answer the question about whether the parent is going to die, the best answer is “Not for a long long time and not until I am very old.”
Of course we all know that we cannot promise this. However, we want to reassure our children while also being as truthful as possible.
And what if the child says, “But so and so’s mommy died.”
Then we must reassure the child: “Accidents such as these do not happen very often and I try to be as careful as I can so I can be here to enjoy life and take care of you.” And also, if the child asked if they can still have Halloween, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” Children are reassured to know that life goes on after someone has died. Perhaps they WILL be sad from time to time, but that is OK too.
Stay tuned for more on this subject in the “Ask Dr. Fran” column:
Should children attend funerals?
What should a parent says when a child asks, “Will I ever die?”
5 thoughts on “Now for the Really Hard Subject: How Do We Talk to Children about Death?”
I read this blog and tears came to my eyes. The anxiety it brings up is overwhelming! I feel like going up right now to make sure my daughter is alive. I really enjoy that you merge the issue of the parents’ ability to tolerate their own anxieties (even just naming that feeling) as well as the practical issue about talking about death itself. Often, bloggers talk about death in a theoretical way and ignore the vast feelings that death triggers. I would love to know about any books that you would recommend as a resource to help families explain death to their children. Now about the idea that things don’t come alive again – we Christians beg to differ as there is a the resurrection :-)! So even though you may write that once somebody is dead the person cannot come alive again, I would make a caveat that for those whose religions suggest otherwise (there is life in heaven, reincarnation, etc.). I would also recommend parents to include a talk with one’s priest or other source of spiritual support in any conversation about death. I look forward to Dr. Fran’s resource section. Thank you so much for this information!
“I’ll do my best not to die prematurely” is fine to say (since after all it is true), but I’ve found it well to address the child’s fear of abandonment by adding, “No matter what happens, someone will take care of you.” Then, if the child seems to want to know, you can tell the child who is named in your will as his or her guardian, should the child be orphaned. (In order to provide your child with this kind of concrete reassurance, you as the parent have to have done the hard work of facing this possibility, identifying a guardian, and drawing up legal documents. How many of us have done this?)
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The idea posted above may be appropriate for older children – teenagers, perhaps – but I do think that it is important to take into account the age of the child when considering providing this sort of information. For a small child of three or four, telling him or her who has been appointed guardian in the event of the death of the parents may be too much information and may to lead to anxiety. For a child in the mid-range, say 8 or 9, this information may or may not be welcome, depending on the sensitivity of the child.
Yes, the age of the child certainly does matter–as does the urgency of the circumstance. When my son was three or four, he raised this question (“Are you going to die?”) in the abstract, and we answered with general reassurances. Now he is thirteen, and his father (my husband) is in hospice care. He (our son) has wondered what would happen to him if I died, too, and we have responded with specifics.
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It is good to see such clear, thoughtful information on this difficult topic.
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