Talking to Children about Death

Some parents have written to me asking for suggestions on how they could explain the concept of death to their children.

There are 2 aspects to explaining death to children (or to anyone else). One is to help them be less afraid of death. This in itself is a tall order. How many of us can claim to have come to terms with the fact that with each passing moment, we are closer to death? Have we even begun to examine our own attitude towards death, our own fear of it? The answer is probably “no”. And still we want to help our children overcome the fear of death? Parents are a strange breed indeed!

The other aspect of death that you might want to address with your child is how to deal with the death of a loved one.

In the first case, the child himself will be gone. In the second, a dear one is gone, and the child needs to deal with the loss, the grief, perhaps the guilt, and maybe even an increased fear of his own death.

Today I’ll tell you some ways in which I have explained death – not only to my child, but to other children as well. In the next post, I’ll give you ideas on how you could help a child deal with the loss of a loved one.

“Where did I come from?” This is one of the questions that most fascinates children. As they grow, they learn about puppies and kittens and calves, they learn about birds hatching eggs, they see seeds grow into plants and trees, and they ask, “Where did I come from?”

Depending on your beliefs and your style of parenting, you come up with some answer to the question. But as your child grows, she wants more detail. (“How did I get into Mom’s tummy?” – a question you might have been dreading! 🙂  More on answering this in a subsequent post.) Given that your child will repeat this question innumerable times over the years, and ask for different kinds of information each time she asks “Where did I come from?”, I hope you are giving / have given some thought to what you’ll say.

I won’t tell you what to say. There are innumerable books, websites, movies out there which will give you ideas. You also have your memory of your own childhood as a resource, as well as ideas, suggestions and the experience of friends and family. For sure you’ll come up with something.

What is important is that you believe in whatever you come up with, that you are comfortable with the point of view, the level of detail, the language and the explanation. That is the only way your child will accept your answer. No matter how far out or how contrary to accepted belief, as long as you believe in the ‘truth’ of your version, your explanation will work.

In case you’re want to remind me that I’ve gone off-track (you’re supposed to be explaining death to a child, not how she was born), rest assured. I’m still with the program. 🙂 

Ever since she was little, one of my daughter’s favorite ‘stories’ has been the story of how she was born. Of course, now that she’s a happening, know-it-all teen, the ‘wonder’ has gone out of the story, though it probably still has some nostalgic value. 🙂 

I don’t even remember when I first spoke to my daughter about death, but we had definitely had a few conversations about it by the time she was 2 years old.

For each of the ideas below, I repeat: use them with caution, only after you have thought each one through and are convinced about the statement. Each ‘answer’ you provide might raise a host of further questions, and unless you’re sure of your beliefs, it would be better not to use the answer. Also, different answers will work at different times with different children. You know yourself and your child, so pick what you think will work, or  use these as inspiration to come up with your own ideas. Do share in the comments – your ideas, experience, and feedback.

Ideas of how you could explain death to your child:

1. It’s like going to sleep: “When you are asleep, you don’t know what is happening around you. I might enter the room, or change your diaper, or pick you up, and you wouldn’t know it. Do you remember how you fell asleep in the car that day, after we’d gone to the zoo? When you woke up, you were in your bed. You don’t remember what happened in between, but many things happened. Death is a bit like that. Things go on, but the dead person is not a part of it.”

Then, extend the logic. “If you’re not part of it, you don’t miss it. So there is nothing to be afraid of.”

2. It’s like going away: “When you go to the park to play, you are not at home. You’ve gone away from home. Dying is like that – people who die go away. (We don’t know where they go.) When you are away from the house, it’s not necessary that you are sad or lonely or frightened. You may be enjoying yourself enormously with your friends. I keep calling you to get home and do your homework, but you’re having so much fun that you don’t want to come back; you want to keep playing outside. So if death is like going away, it doesn’t mean it has to hurt or be painful or sad or lonely. When you’ve gone away to the park, you could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting with your friends – anything could be happening. But that is true of life at home too! You could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting at home as well. It’s all happening in a different place – that’s all.”

3. You have died before, only you don’t remember – This is my favorite explanation! 🙂  “When you were a little baby inside Mom’s / my tummy, you only knew darkness. Everything around you was soft and wet, all the sounds that reached you were muted. Nobody ever touched you, you only felt vibrations – like when a heavy truck goes past and you feel its movement in your body. You were safe and comfortable. That was your life inside the tummy. But nature does not allow babies to live inside the mom’s tummy forever. So you had to come out. You came out into bright light, into a cold dry room, with strange voices talking loudly, plastic gloves touching you. I’m sure you must have hated it!

We (your parents) welcomed you with joy. ‘Our baby is born!’ we said, delighted. We couldn’t stop smiling. But for you, for the little baby, it was like a death. The place you were in, the way you lived earlier (inside the tummy) was your life. And that life ended – it changed. You went away to another world – that is, you came into this world. So the death you think of as the end of this life is not necessarily bad – the more you think about it, the more anxious you will get, but that anxiety will not change anything. Everyone has to die, but dying out of this life may mean being born in another place. And guess what? You actually celebrate the day you died inside the tummy – you celebrate it with cake and candles and gifts as your birthday! 🙂 🙂 

4. What if nobody died? – This is a great way of getting children to see why death in the abstract is desirable. Ask your child this open-ended question, and keep asking questions to each of her responses. It will lead to the realization that it is important that living things should die. A hypothetical conversation:

You: What if nobody ever died?

Your child: Then people would live forever! Nobody would have to go away.

You: Where would these people live? We complain already of so much traffic on the roads, so many people without jobs, too many children trying to secure admission in too few ‘good’ schools, too many people dying of hunger, too many people without homes. If nobody ever died, where would all these people live? Where would they find enough food?

Your child: (Some answer.)

You: And what would these people do with their time?

Your child: They would play/watch movies/have fun/shop (whatever is your child’s “fun thing” at the moment).

You: For how long? You like playing, but can you imagine Granddad playing for hours in the park? When you go for a walk with him, you complain that he walks too slowly. What would you do if you lived to be that age and you lived forever? Even as a child, you come home tired after playing for a few hours. How would you like to just keep playing all through the day every single day? Believe it or not, you’ll be bored.

“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.”  

Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC)

7 Responses to Talking to Children about Death

  1. Christopher Foster December 22, 2011 at 12:53 am #

    It’s a beautiful, powerful, gorgeous post Vinita. Well done taking hold of this subject in such an authoritative but imaginative way. Best wishes for a wonderful Christmas.

    • Vinita Zutshi December 22, 2011 at 2:32 am #

      Thanks for your wonderful words, Christopher. Have a merry Christmas, and a super 2012!

  2. Venu Arora December 22, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Nicely written Vinita! Nethra tok the cue from Lion King and ever since has been asking us – so will you die and when I say yes- but not yet – she wants to know so when will you die!! 🙂 We must meet again.
    Lots of Love and a merry christmas!

    • Vinita Zutshi December 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

      Thanks Venu! 🙂 That is ONE rocking kid you have, bless her! But soon the time will come when she won’t even let you mention the words and the tears will spill at the very thought… Yes, let’s meet again – all of us. Hugs to you both and lots of holiday cheer!

  3. Preeti Hans December 25, 2011 at 12:09 am #

    Wonderful post Vinita
    Wonderful quote at the end…

    we feel happy the day mother delivers a baby and cry the day the earth delivers one!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Death of a Loved One – Help Your Child to Cope: I « Carefree Parenting - December 23, 2011

    […] Talking to Children about Death […]

  2. Death of a Loved One – Help Your Child to Cope: 2 « Carefree Parenting - December 27, 2011

    […] Talking – Your child may want to talk, or not. It’s easier if she wants to talk, because you will be […]

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