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Do You Need to Talk to Your Children About Death?

Death is a hard topic to discuss with children.

Key points

  • The best thing you can do as a parent is to start early and talk about it often.
  • The knowledge of death can lend more meaning to life.

This is Part 3 in a series on loss and resilience in childhood.

For a child, losing a loved one is scary—because it makes death real.

For a child, death itself is scary—because what is death, anyway?

For a child, losing a loved one is excruciating—because the pain of not having the loved one is so terrible and the capacity for bearing pain is so small.

For a child, missing a loved one is possibly the hugest part of loss.

For a child, losing a loved one is confusing—because it is hard to understand why this person had to die.

For a child, losing a loved one stirs up guilt—because the child imagines that she could have prevented her loved one from dying if only she had behaved differently.

And for each child, grief is experienced, felt, and expressed differently. Each child goes through her own particular feelings at her own rate.

We hate to think about our children suffering. We prefer to think we can protect them. Sometimes we even try to shield them.

But the sad fact is that many kids suffer losses due to death during their childhoods. Whether it is the loss of a grandparent, the loss of a teacher, the loss of a public figure, the loss of a friend, or the most grievous loss of all, the death of a sibling or parent. So how do we prepare our children for the possibility of any of these?

This is something we have been talking about in our parenting group. And many of the parents have acknowledged that in the confusion of everyday life, it is hard to get to this topic.

One of the mothers realized that she really did not want to talk about death with her children—and another seconded this, saying that growing up, death and loss had just not been talked about in her family and she didn’t know how to start.

It is important for us as parents to acknowledge—to ourselves—that it is not possible to protect children from loss—and that we do need to get ourselves to talk about it. Because, if we don’t, how are our children going to know that it’s an OK thing to talk about? And how are they going to be prepared when someone they know and love dies?

In our society, death is kept at a distance.

People who are dying are often in the hospital, in a continuous care community, or in a residential hospice. Children are not accustomed to being around those who are dying and most children have never seen someone who has died.

This makes death strange. And foreign.

But as parents, we know well that death is a part of life—and we need to introduce our children to this knowledge. We don't want to. But we need to.

But how to start? The best way is to talk about loss and death early…and often.

It should not be a one-time conversation.

Parents can start when children are as young as 2 or 3. The conversation can begin when the child sees a dead bug or a dead animal or even a dead plant or a dead leaf. The parent can bring it up or the child can bring it up. Either way, start talking about it. Children are super-curious about these things. They want to know what happened and why.

And talking about death when it has happened to something or someone distant from the child is helpful. Explain what death is.

You can talk about it in a very concrete way: for example, you can say that when something dies, what happens depends on whether it is a plant or a living being. If it is a plant or a leaf, it turns brown, it decomposes and it goes back into the earth. If it is a bug or an animal or a person, it stops breathing and moving. It cannot eat or sleep anymore and its body will decompose and go back into the earth.

Your child will have questions, of course. They may want to know what and who can die. They will want to know if you will die or if they themselves will die.

This is when the conversation gets more difficult. But children can and want to know the truth.

And yes, they may worry about dying once they have learned about it. They may have a period of time when they worry about you dying. They may have nights when they think about death before they go to sleep. They may have periods when they can’t get to sleep because they are thinking about death.

But this is OK. It is normal. It is part of childhood to learn about death, and to worry about death.

And the best thing a parent can do is to not leave the child all alone with these thoughts and feelings—but to stick in there and to be available to talk about them.

As children progress through development, the conversation can become more sophisticated: “What causes people to die?” “What role does illness play in death?” “What is cancer?” “Why can’t all cancers be cured?” “Is there life after death?” “Where do our spirits go when we die?” “Why can’t we live forever?”

Each of these questions can be entertained. All you have to do is to answer to the best of your ability. And maintain an attitude that says “we can keep talking about this.”

In adolescence, the questions can become fully existential: “What is the purpose of life if we are all going to die anyway?” “How do I make my life meaningful knowing that I’m eventually going to die?” “What is the best use of time, knowing that our time is limited?” “Is there really such a thing as heaven?” “If there is a God, why does he/she let people suffer and die?”

And the best answer to these questions is not always an answer, it can be a question that you put back to your teenager: “What do you think?”

This is a conversation.

And if your teen is motivated, if they are really interested, you can refer them to the philosophers. You can talk to them about spiritual beliefs. You can suggest they talk to your priest or rabbi or imam. And to their friends. And again, you can keep the conversation going.

Death is hard for all of us to understand. Often, we just try to avoid thinking about it. But, for many of us, including for many children, the knowledge of death lends more meaning to life, and to the value of each day and each moment.

Stick in there. It’s not easy. But being available and willing to talk about loss and death is one of the best things we can do for our children.

More from Corinne Masur Psy.D.
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