You may have asked yourself or searched online to find out if it’s “normal” for children to seem engrossed by death and dying—the results are in and it’s completely normal, especially around the age of four years old, when there seems to be a particular fascination. Not only is this the age of “why” (meaning they’re likely to eventually ask “why” about death), it’s also about the time kids begin to grasp the main concept of death.
“Dr. Sally Beville Hunter, Ph.D., explains that older toddlers with neurotypical development establish a solid grasp of the main component concepts of death. These subconcepts are non-functionality, universality, irreversibility, and inevitability.” In layman's terms, non-functionality is “the notion that death causes the body to stop working as it should.”
So, while it makes perfect sense, it certainly doesn't mean as adults we know how to deal with it or what information feels appropriate to share with children.
At Eirene we’ve made it our mission to unpack difficult conversations around end-of-life and we’re here to support you.
We hope this article provides you with a place to start addressing some of these unknowns, an overview of some of the most helpful framing and context, in addition to some supplemental resources.
What Do Kids Grasp About Death?
Though children pick up these concepts at different ages, depending on their cognitive abilities and their life experiences, at 4, the subconcept they tend to understand first is non-functionality.” “Because it’s straightforward, many preschoolers can understand that when you’re dead, your arms and legs don’t move anymore, and your heart stops beating.”
Of course, as children age their understanding of death and dying continues to expand as well. As they get older and older they’re also likely to experience it first hand.
Tips & Tricks
For all of us death and dying can be filled with difficult emotions and for children this can be an especially confusing experience—full of questions and sadness, or even anger.
Children will likely ask many questions and sometimes the same questions over and over again. It’s best to answer honestly, giving information in a way that is appropriate for the age of the child.
While it’s of course always up to the caregiver to determine what’s best for the child in question, we wanted to provide a few considerations for dealing with these kinds of conversations:
Be clear, use simple language and don’t use euphemisms
Phrases liked “passed away” or “they’re in a better place” can be confusing for kids and have them thinking the person is able to come back or that being here wasn’t as good as not being here on earth. While being upfront might be uncomfortable and even painful, or seem too direct, in the end it will provide the most effective way to be honest and clear, which is what’s best for the child (and everyone for that matter).
You can explain death like this:
Death is natural.
All living things die, this is what happens to flowers, animals and people.
We’re born, we live and we die. It’s a natural part of life.
“‘When you die, your heart stops. Your body stops working. You don't eat. You don't breathe.’”
The more concrete the information about what it means to die, the easier it is for the child to understand.
And, if your religious beliefs include an afterlife or resurrection, try to address any questions straightforwardly.
Take Things Slowly
It takes kids longer to process and often they put things together piece by piece. Try not to overwhelm them or expect that they will take it in all at once.
“A hospice social worker who specialized in talking with children about death once likened this process to the way a child eats an apple:
‘They take a bite, maybe two bites, then put it down. That’s probably how they’re going to experience death as well. They’re [going to take] a couple of bites. They’re [going to] go on with their lives. And then they’re [going to] come back, and they’re [going to] take a couple more bites.’”
Addressing Fear & Abandonment
It’s very common for kids to associate the loss of a loved one with fears of being abandoned. If this comes up for the child, remind them there are many different people who care for them, family members, friends, grandparents etc., that they’re not alone and that will always be cared for.
This is a tricky one for sure and may manifest in the child having trouble sleeping, wanting to be very close and cuddly with the adults in their lives and asking lots of questions about whether or not you’re going to die too (keep reading for more on that).
Like all grief it looks and feels different for everyone and this is also true for kids.
Grownups Cry Too
“That’s especially true if you, the [adult], are mourning the death of someone close to you. This will be a long process. Showing emotion and explaining the feelings that underlie those emotions help prepare children for future moments when you may, again, feel overwhelmed by grief.”
This is also a helpful moment that allows caregivers to talk about feelings with the child:
- Name feelings
- Talk about feelings
- Can you feel this feeling somewhere in your body?
- Teach coping mechanism
- Use positive reinforcement: praise the child for expressing their emotions (“I really like the way you used your words when you told me your heart hurt when we talked about how had Grandma died.”)
- Model healthy choices: “I’m feeling really sad and I’m missing Grandma a lot. I’m going to take a few deep breaths and then I wonder if you would give me a hug? I think that would make me feel less lonely right now” (or model another healthy coping skill). This way, the child can learn to recognize the skills you use when you feel sad.
The Ritual Rule
Of course things are different now, during COVID times, and funerals and gatherings are often being postponed, not happening at all or the gathering is moved online. No matter what, never force the child to attend a death or dying ritual, remotely or otherwise. Give them the choice. No matter what they decide, tell them what to expect and that you’re ok with whatever decision they make. “[I]f you're going to a funeral with an open casket, explain what that will mean. Again, be clear and concrete. Then let the child decide if she thinks she's ready for that.”
Life Goes On
It’s important to convey to the child that life does go on (even though that feels really hard to understand sometimes), it’s a tough time right now and we also have things to look forward to and be grateful for (this is an excellent opportunity to teach your child about both/and thinking).One activity that was recommended has children trace their hand on a sheet of paper and, for each finger, ask them to list something they’re looking forward to—It could be camping in the backyard or baking a favourite dessert. Regardless of the answers, the point is to keep the hope alive.
While the concept of life going on after the death of someone we love is hard to wrap our heads around, it’s also one of the things we can count on in some ways, difficult and heartbreaking as it is...
Talking To Your Child About Their Own Death
This is of course a different conversation if your child is simply curious about death and dying and inevitably this leads to questions around their own death (keep reading this post), or if this is a reality for the child and they’re living with a terminal diagnosis.
If it’s the later, as part of pediatric palliative care the acknowledgement of mortality is an important consideration when treating children with palliative needs. It’s natural to want to protect your “child by not telling them about [their illness]. But children usually know that something is wrong. Experts agree that even children as young as 3 or 4 years old should be told the truth according to their level of understanding” and it’s important totalk to them about their diagnosis, and if/when the time comes, about theirdeath.
This is an unimaginable consideration to be faced with and no amount of preparation, resource and support will make it any easier. It is a burden no adult or caregiver imagines ever facing. If you do find yourself in this situation, please remember to seek out support. While you’re the only one who truly knows what’s right for you, it can sometimes feel comforting to speak with a professional or spend time with others who have gone through some of the same things you’re going through. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to them about things that you don’t feel you can share with anyone else. No matter what kind of support you choose, please remember to take care of yourself, as best you can anyway, as you navigate an incomprehensible difficulty (and understatement).
When There’s A Death In Your Direct Circle
This kind of death will likely impact the child in a deeper, more personal way. We recommend continuing to follow the tips and tricks above and keep conversations clear and concrete. One of the ways kids can process their emotions is through working on an art project together. Choose something to memorialize the person who died and find extra ways to spend more time with the child. They often want to be in close contact, some will fear being abandoned or even ask about you dying as well. Refer back to the points above and be prepared for a few extra cuddles and a lot of patience and love (this is probably also helpful for you, as you mourn together).
- Our top book recommendations:
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way To Explain Death to Children
- The Invisible String
- The Memory Tree
- In My Heart: A Book of Feelings
- Tess’ Tree
- CBC recommends these nine books to help kids understand death
- Fatherly shared this article with their suggestions
- This NY Times article shared the below:
- Fatherly has an excellent roundup of kids’ TV shows that help explain death and dying to your small ones (one such is a classic Mr. Rogers episode “Death of a Goldfish”).
- Maria Russo, the Times children’s book editor, recommends The Flat Rabbit, which she called “a quietly profound” picture book that deals with the death of a stranger straight-on.
Should none of these speak to you a quick online search will lead to a plethora of additional resources. Like most things linked to parenting there is an endless array of opinions and suggestions.
While death and dying can be difficult subjects to think and talk about, we're committed to providing simple, compassionate, and transparent information (and services) to Canadians. We trust that creating a different and more open dialogue around death becomes integral to a good life and believe having these conversations, and especially with children, has the power to transform our death averse culture—Imagine a world in which we’re not death avoidant, where children grow up with a healthy and open relationship to end-of-life and that this is one step in breaking down the taboos and barriers that exist in our society around death and dying.
Let’s continue to pull the shroud off death, to demystify it, especially for children, and begin to speak more openly about something we all experience, something deeply human that connects us all.
We’re here to support you and have made it our mission to unpack difficult conversations around death and dying. To learn more and access additional resources visit www.eirene.ca.