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Shanna Reeves Ph.D., LSSP

Talking To Little Ones About Death

It can be hard to find the words to be honest and reassuring.

Spending time with two little ones at night has got to be my favorite part of the day. Most of the time, that is. On a recent evening filled with cooperation (on their part) and patience (on my part having missed them all day while at the office), we were having a lovely time. Relatively recently, we had to say goodbye to a sweet pet companion, after 15 years. Conversation turned to this topic as it does from time to time, when discussing the storyline of a classic Disney picture we recently watched together. There is a death of the main character’s father figure, and I really agonized over whether they should see it when they begged to check it out from the library. We watched, and there were no issues during or at all afterwards. But whenever the movie came up in conversation, it was 50/50 on whether we were going down that road: the one that leads to “what happens to us when we die, momma” conversation.

I am thinking we’ve dodged the topic for tonight as conversation turns to the next movie we should watch and the upcoming weekend, and I’m grateful. It’s getting really close to lights out, but then, sure as rain, my four-year-old little girl pipes up: “Momma, how did Sassy (our cat) get to heaven when she got dead? Was there a rope that just pulled her up there, or did God use an excavator (her word for an escalator) like at the mall?”

There were a few giggles, then a thought-filled beat, and my eight-year-old son, said “No, that’s not how it works, Sister”—he actually still calls her Sister in these moments in such a sweet, gentle, authoritative tone—“she doesn’t really GO up to heaven but it’s her inside parts, her personality and stuff, that goes up there.” Whew, thanks, buddy, I say internally. I have to remember that next time he asks for gum at the checkout. You see, my son had been about her age when we lost our first family pet, and he has matured so much since then he is coping very well with this loss. She smiles in response and nods, so I think this is sufficient for now. I suggest we choose our story, it’s getting late. But Sister is noticeably quiet, internal wheels turning as I am opening the book and turning to the first page. “So does Sassy still need water to drink in heaven?” Ah, ok, so we are gonna do this...right before bed. Here we go. Thus began the productive, sweet, and sometimes funny conversation that inspired this post. It made me realize, thank goodness I have specialized training in this stuff…otherwise I would have struggled a lot more than I did to find the words! I can imagine when this moment strikes for most parents of young children they don't just struggle for the right words, but just any words to be helpful, reassuring, and truthful.

So even though we’ve talked about it before, I say again that when you are in heaven there is nothing that you need—you don’t need food, you’re never thirsty, you never need to sleep, you aren’t ever cold, hot, itchy, or in need of a bandaid. This is just like our Sassy—she isn’t in anymore earthly pain, there isn’t anything she might need or any discomfort she will ever have to face ever again. In our house, as you’ve likely noticed, we believe there is a heaven, but if you do not have such a belief system in your home, this answer still works for the little ones. You may refer generally to “what comes after death,” and answer honestly if you feel comfortable, and feel free to calmly say you don’t know the answer to some of the questions your little one may ask. Breathe deeply and know these questions are natural, children are curious, and they’re basically looking to you to know they have nothing to fear, it will be ok, you are ok, they are ok, and you aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

We finished our story, and when I came back after tucking in Bubs, my baby girl was very sad and tearful and told me “Momma, I don’t want you to ever die.” I told her I felt the same way about my momma when I was a little girl, and even now I'm a mommy and I still feel the same way about my parents, too. I hugged her close, and told her losing Sassy has been hard. I know she feels sad. Life prepares you for the very hard stuff before you get to it, and losing Sassy is the first lesson Life is giving her. It will show her that she won't always feel sad when she thinks about Sassy. She seemed content with this conversation, and when I left her with kisses was all snug and peaceful. Now, do I know that I will still be here when she’s a grown up? Absolutely not. I can only hope and pray that I am. I am grateful for every second I spend with my people in this life, but I’m not ever going to be ready to lose the ones I love the most, and she will likely never be ready to lose me. But neither one of us is going anywhere. At least, not right now.

Next time I'll post my favorite book recommendations to read to children about grief, and additional recommendations upcoming will focus on parenting through grief as well.

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About the Author

Shanna Reeves, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and licensed specialist in school psychology. She has extensive expertise working with people and families impacted by chronic illness.