How to Talk to Children about Death?

A few months ago, my 2.5 year old son started developing a new fear. He was, suddenly, awfully scared of dogs. When we would switch-off the lights at bedtime he would say, “Don’t switch-off the light, doggy will come.” Clearly I was troubled by this new phase, and considering I have never taken the route of instilling a fear in him to get him to do something – I was troubled even more. I began looking for books with dogs as characters. I started telling him stories about the pet dogs I had as a child. The stories caught his attention for a bit but didn’t do anything drastic. I knew this was a phase and it too shall pass. But what if it didn’t? I panicked. We even considered getting a pet home but there were constraints.

This is when I met a stray dog. Sadly, I only noticed him during this period of distress. I had often seen him sprawled on the staircase that led to my studio but I never paid attention. As a mom, one often becomes a problem solver. I had an idea. I took Viraaj grocery shopping. Then we reached the counter with dog treats. I spoke elaborately about what dogs like to eat and we decided to buy chewable bones for the stray. The plan seemed to work wonderfully. Whenever Viraaj came to the studio he gave the dog a bone, much to the dog’s delight of course. Then one day we decided to give him a name. Viraaj decided to call him Brick. I was impressed with the name he came up with from his limited vocabulary (inspired by the story of The Three Little Pigs – stories are amazing! As I always say).

A few months went by. We all began pampering Brick who greeted us with a wagging tail on all our trips up and down the stairs. I found myself making conversation with Brick ever so often. We finally had a pet and, mind you, with no strings attached. Then one day, Brick wasn’t there. He’s a stray, must have wandered off I thought. He will come back. A week went by. Viraaj asked about him every time he came to the studio. Finally the mystery was solved by one of the workers. Brick was attacked by a group of strays and he was badly injured the last time anyone saw him. “He died”, he said to our horror.

This presented another challenge before us. How is one supposed to explain death to a toddler? Talking to children about death can be tricky, they may or may not understand. As parents, my husband and I have decided to be as upfront as possible with Viraaj. No matter how uncomfortable his questions are, the rule is to answer them all truthfully. So I told him Brick got attacked by other stray dogs, he got hurt and now he is dead. Yes I used the word ‘dead’ because I didn’t want to give him a term like ‘gone away’, ‘passed away’, or any other not-so-strong term. Long before we talk about it, children seem to have an idea of what death means. They have either encountered dead insects, birds, or animals lying on the road. On television and video games too death is a term they hear quite a bit. Which is why I realised it was so important to tell him exactly what happened to his Brick and not just leave it at that.

I went on to say, “everyone has to die someday”. He heard me out quietly, then posed his queries. “Everyone gets attacked by stray dogs?”, he asked innocently.

Me: No. Sometimes people die when they fall very sick or meet with an accident
Viraaj: Why don’t they just go to the doctor?
Me: Sometimes medicines also don’t help
Viraaj: Where do they go?

At this question, I faltered. Where do people go after they die? I asked myself this question. I looked at my toddler. He needed an answer and he seems to, at least for now, think that I have answers to all the questions in the world. So I took the liberty of giving him closure by way of a speculation (something I believe in and to which you may or may not agree).

Me: They go to God and become stars
Viraaj: Brick is a star now?
Me: Yes
Viraaj: Which one?
Me: I don’t know. He could be any star in the sky

Yes, this took care of his curiosity for a while. I seemed very pleased he didn’t have any more questions.

The next day when we went to the studio, he asked me the same question. “Where is Brick?” I was surprised. I told him that he was dead. “When will he come back?”, he asked. I panicked again. Now how was I supposed to tell him that the dead didn’t come back? That’s when I realised that Viraaj has made an assumption about death being a temporary phase. I kept my calm and told him that he was not coming back.

Death is life’s greatest uncertainty. Coming to terms with death can be a lifelong process. We may find different answers at different stages of our lives. Studies show that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death. Preschoolers usually see death as temporary, reversible and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously recover after being crushed or blown up reinforces this idea. (Which is another reasons why we should strictly filter the content being watched by children on television. Studies have shows that apart from giving children false and unrealistic ideas, some cartoon shows drastically affect behaviour. They begin to associate violence and hitting with humour.)

Between ages 5-9 years, most children are warming up to the idea of death being final and that all living beings die. But they still do not see death as personal. Most of them feel they can escape death. During this stage, children also tend to personify death. They may associate death with a skeleton or a monster and they may even have nightmares about these images.

From age 9 through adolescence, children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living beings die and that they too will die someday.

It is important to note that all children are different and express their fears and joys differently. Some children may ask questions about death as early as 3 years while others may be oblivious to it even when they are 5-6 years old. Usually death is a topic that needs a trigger. A loss of a loved one or even a pet is usually a trigger – as in my case.

And just when I thought I had managed to clear this obstacle with flying colours and almost gave myself a pat on the back – Brick came back. Yes! As a pet owner I was speechless. I ran down to get him a pack of glucose biscuits and fed them to him while his delighted backside oscillated like a high speed pendulum. When I reached the last biscuit a thought crossed my mind. Now what? And how will I explain this to Viraaj?

Of course Viraaj’s happiness knew no bounds. As soon as he entered my studio, as expected, he said, “Mum Brick came back. He is not dead now.”

Whoa! While I too tried to share his delight and excitement my mind was processing these words “He is not dead now.” I decided to be mum for now. When the level of excitement came down, I called up my husband and made sure Viraaj was around to hear our conversation. I told him how Brick was NEVER dead and how someone misinformed us. After I hung up I told Viraaj that Brick was never dead and had gone away for a few days. We were misinformed. I don’t know how much he managed to comprehend but I know for sure he feels death is temporary.

This is when I decided to bring home a potted plant. At the moment we are tending to it, watering it, talking to it. And when the plant shrivels away, I plan to talk to Viraaj about how the plant lived its life and has now died and that all living beings die.

I also plan to pick up some books on the subject and read them to him. Books are a fantastic way of conveying a message to a child without making the subject too daunting. However there are some books that should only be read to a child after they have suffered a loss else they might induce fearsome anxiety in kids.

In case your child hasn’t asked the question yet, you may chose not to approach it. However when children begin interacting with other children, understanding stories (fairy tales, mythological tales – where death, step mothers, and step fathers are very common), and playing with other children – death is a subject that will surface sooner or later.

As a parent I feel, it is also not wise to confront children with information that they may not understand or want to know. As with any sensitive subject, we must seek a delicate balance that encourages children to communicate. It is important to answer questions in simple language appropriate for the age of the child. Also try and be brief and give simple explanations that children may understand and do not overwhelm them with too many words.

No matter how children cope with death or express their feelings, they need sympathetic and non-judgemental responses from their parents. If parents shy away from answering their questions, it is obviously upsetting for the child. They begin to fear asking question on the subject and try finding answers elsewhere. They also might begin treating death like a taboo and be non accepting of this big truth of life.

It is also important for parents to choose their words carefully while talking about death. Sometimes parents tend to use terms such as ‘eternal sleep’, ‘rest in peace’, ‘passed away’ in front of children. This might confuse children even more and they might think death means going to sleep or resting. This in turn might make them fear ‘sleep’ or ‘rest’. The subject requires tact, yes, but then all parents know their kids best and usually find a way to talk about it to their children.

It may help to tell our children that different people believe different things about death, and that not everyone believes the dead go to God or become stars. This will keep conflicts at playtime or in school at bay.

As a parent I am always very conscious of the fact that however I tackle a certain situation my thoughts and feelings are getting conveyed to my child. My child will always remember what I told him first about a certain subject and therefore I always choose my words and frame my answers very carefully.

Perhaps most difficult of all, communicating about death involves examining our own feelings and beliefs so that we can talk to our children naturally when opportunities arise. Do remember when you are not sure how to give an answer just say, “I don’t know the answer to that one”, instead of shushing or distracting the child momentarily.

By talking to our children about death, we may discover what they know and do not know; if they have fears, anxieties or concerns. We can then help them by providing information, comfort, understanding and love. Talk does not solve all problems, but without talk, we are even more limited in our ability to help.

Book Recommendations:

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
This is a book about the rhythm of life and death for all creatures, for everything that is born. It talks about how death is neither fair nor unfair – It simply is. This book may be incorporated in regular reading time after the child turns 4 years old.

Charlotte’s Web

A classic tale that every child must read! It is not just a book about friendship but also talks about the circle of life and death is part of the natural cycle of things… Chalotte dies, but her children live on.

Mrs. Katz and Tush (Reading Rainbow Book)

A book about continuation of life where there has been death. This book has so much to give – it’s about intergenerational friendship, cultural differences, circle of life and so much more. A book I read as part of normal reading time with my 3 year old since he was 2.

Everett Anderson’s Goodbye (Reading Rainbow)

If you are looking for a book about emotions or stages of death. Recommended for a child who has unfortunately lost a parent.

Photo of author

Rohini Vij

Rohini is a professional storyteller, educator, listed & certified Jolly Phonics UK trainer, curriculum developer, parenting coach, founder of NutSpace. She is on a mission to raise readers and is actively engaged with curriculum development for schools and her own ed-tech platform - Nutspace Edtech.

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