Talking about death with your child

If you enjoy this article please comment and follow me on Twitter @maddadskillz or Facebook or Instagram.  Illustration credit to @paulcarlonillustration

Difficult questions from children 

My wife and I are those annoying parents. The hideously prepared, play-out-every-scenario-beforehand parents. We talked endlessly when she was pregnant about the type of parents we wanted to be. Since then we’ve spent every opportunity imagining how we’ll deal with the many parental dilemmas that will arise in our future.

How will we explain periods to my daughter? (Answer: my wife will do it)

How will we explain consent to my son? (Answer: my wife will do it)

How will we justify only allowing our son to drink milk or water while we guzzle down cans of Coke? (Answer: my wife will do it)

However, there was one topic we hadn’t yet discussed how to handle. We thought we might have a few years yet.

“Why do people die, Daddy?” asked our 4 year old, while we were out on a dog walk. My wife and I exchanged “what the…?” glances. This, we weren’t prepared for.

Explaining death to a child

We expected to spend most of Christmas Eve fending off questions about Santa, not trying to answer questions about death.

On a personal level, I lost two friends at work towards the end of 2015. Throughout their various wakes, funerals and memorial services I have explained to my son what was happening. This year, on Remembrance Sunday, I took my son to the local ceremony with a poppy specifically for my friends. I explained what we were doing and he asked: “Are your friends still dead, Daddy?” “Yes, buddy, that’s kind of how it works.”

So maybe he’s been primed for the big question throughout this year, it simply took a certain festive tradition to act as the catalyst. He came home from Nana and Pops’ house having watched The Snowman and Snowdog. SPOILER ALERT: The old family dog dies just before Christmas, the kid asks Santa for a new dog, builds one out of snow, and it comes to life.

When he got home all he wanted to watch was “The one where the dog dies.”

Thanks Snowdog!

The Questions

So how do you field questions about death when they are coming from a frustratingly smart and curious 4 year old? I went for the open and honest approach:

Why do people die, Daddy?

All manner of reasons, son. Mostly it is because as time passes we grow older and older. The same way that your toys get old and then break. So, do our bodies.

Will I die, Daddy?

Yes, buddy. We will all die. That is why we must take every moment to have fun and play together while we can. You should maximise this life, son, enjoy every second of it.

How can we die, Daddy?

There are many different ways that people die, son. You needn’t worry about that, the most important thing is that you are sensible and careful, this will help to keep you safe.

Can I die if I fall off my bike?

Well, technically yes, but actually you are mostly likely to just hurt yourself. There is a big difference between being hurt and dying. That is one of the reasons we wear a helmet, to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves too much.

Yes, because when I fell off my bike I hurt my bum but I didn’t die.

Exactly, a sore bum isn’t that bad.

Do people stay dead, Daddy?

Yes, I’m afraid they do, son, but what we get to do is remember them. Just because someone is dead doesn’t mean you can’t think about them. You can always think of the times they made you happy. I think about my friends a lot, so do a lot of people. So even though they have died, they still exist to us.

My son is a caring and thoughtful soul. He took all this on-board very well and, short of the regular and somewhat morbid requests to watch “the one where the dog dies”, seemed to have had his curiosity satisfied.

Where is Heaven, Daddy?

Of course, with kids, it’s never a done deal.

After Christmas Eve I spoke to his grandparents and they recalled a conversation he had with them recently.

He was curious who their “mummy and daddy” were. Nana explained that her mummy was Great Granny Nanny but that her Daddy was in Heaven. Pops explained both his parents were in Heaven.

You’ll have noted that at no point in my day long discussion with my son did I mention Heaven. I think I fear those theological questions more than I fear the death questions. At least I can conceptualise death.

I’m still waiting for my son to ask about Heaven, but when he does, here is what I will say:

Heaven is a special place, son. A special place in our minds. It is where all the good and fun memories of someone go. So, if someone dies and we can no longer make memories with them, we can always see them in that place in our mind. The place where the person is still lively, smiling, and happy. We can close our eyes and remember all the good memories we shared with them.

And, because Heaven is in our head, we have a special ability. Much like we can talk to ourselves in our head, so too can we speak with our lost friends. We can use our thoughts to talk to our friends long after we can’t have proper conversations with them anymore. Just because someone has died doesn’t mean they disappear, their memory will always be with you.

Conceptualise THAT, kid!

Have you had to field these questions from your kids?  How did you answer them? I’d be keen to see how others have confronted this.

If you enjoyed this article please comment and follow me on Twitter @maddadskillz or Facebook or Instagram.  Illustration credit to @paulcarlonillustration

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8 thoughts on “Talking about death with your child

  1. I really like this way of explaining death and heaven to kids. It sure seems like it would be a comforting thing to be told when you’re a young child.

    1. Thanks Lydia. He seemed satisfied. But it is easy enough to explain when it’s abstract. No one has actually died. (Well…not counting Snowdog!) I’m sure it much harder with emotions involved.

    1. Funnily enough I think it was good to have it come up in this, fairly, unemotional context. I can’t imagine trying to do it rationally when emotions and loss are involved.

  2. This is awesome! I think you’ve dealt with the topic really well. You’ve given him the truth but not in a scary way. I’ve had some of these exact questions off my daughter too and she is 6 so perhaps it’s part of a developmental stage. I think it’s so important not to trivialise their concerns though or try to avoid their questions just like this. Sorry you lost 2 friends. How lovely to show your son how to remember them. #thatfridaylinky

    1. Well thank you for those kind words. I completely agree that being direct is the way ahead. Kids are capable of so much more capacity than we sometimes give them credit for. I’ve another post in the works about his questions on Good Guys versus Bad Guys.

  3. Our girls are four and have asked this question numerous times. They started off by asking if I had a Mummy and where she was. They were quite young when they asked so I explained my mummy wasn’t well so she went to live in the sky. They had more questions such as can she see us, can she come back down, if we go in an aeroplane can we see her etc, but now they’re a tad older they know she’s passed away. M asked me a few days ago if we would die and I said yes, but not for a very, very long time. It can be so hard to answer questions like this, but I think by being honest it’s the best thing you can do. They’ve also asked about period after seeing my in the toilets once. I told them the truth in ‘kid language’. Great post. Thanks for linking up to #ThatFridayLinky

  4. It’s a very difficult one love the way you have approached it personally I think honesty is the best policy Thanks for linking to the #THAT FRIDAY LINKY come back next week please

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