Talking to Your Children About Death
Unfortunately, at some point during your parenting career, you’re going to have to talk to your children about death. Sometimes, the unexpected death of a family member or pet prompts this conversation before you’re ready; other times, you have some control on how to bring up the subject and handle it with your children.
When should you start talking to your children about death? Start with this excellent guide from the National Institutes of Health. Watch your children; they are likely to become interested in or curious about the subject, sometimes as early as the toddler years. Many movies and stories geared towards small children include some mention of death; Simba’s father Mufasa dies in The Lion King, for example, and Cinderella’s mother dies in both the Disney and fairy tale versions of her story. At some point, your children are going to become aware of death, even if they do not fully understand it.
There are two types of children; the first type will ask you questions about death, and the second type will avoid the subject. Pay attention to your child so you know whether he or she is ready to ask questions or is avoiding talking about the concept. Even when children do not understand death, they often recognize that death is a scary or sad topic, and that mentioning death makes Mommy and Daddy sad too. This is why they avoid asking questions, even when they are curious.
If your child starts asking questions about death, answer him or her honestly. Many children report long-term anxiety or confusion after being told that a loved family member was "only sleeping" or "has just gone away for a while." Children need to learn that death is not the same as sleeping, and that it is permanent.
Talking to children about death is also a good way to teach your family’s faith and values. Many families, for example, believe that love lives on after death and that dying brings you closer to God. If you prefer a more scientific explanation, talk simply about how bodies go back into the earth and help new plants grow. If you would like help with the conversation, both Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood have special episodes designed to help children understand death in a safe, comforting way.
Expect your children to have fear and concern about death. They may be afraid of loved ones dying, or may be afraid of dying themselves. This type of fear is often amplified by children’s stories, many of which begin with the death or disappearance of a beloved parent. As renowned psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, wrote in his book The Uses of Enchantment, death is so prevalent in fairy stories and children’s tales precisely to help young children understand death and overcome their fears.
Explain to your children that you are not planning to die for a very long time but even if something bad happens, they will still be loved and taken care of. Liran Hirschkorn, founder of BestLifeQuote knows the importance of preparing for the unexpected; while you don’t need to explain life insurance to a preschooler, it is all right to say that Mommy and Daddy have taken steps to ensure that no matter what happens, your children will be safe, protected, and loved.
Like many of the big questions, expect your children to continue to ask questions about death as they get older. Be prepared to talk about their specific concerns, including where they would live if you died, or why there aren’t any cures for cancer or other illnesses. Remember that one of the best ways to be helpful during these important conversations is to simply listen to your children and let them know that you are there.
How did you talk to your children about death? Were there any parts of the conversation you wish had gone differently? Let us know in the comments.