Talking to children about death

Not so long back, a neighbour spelled out the word ‘dead’ to us in a conversation so that her small daughter would not understand what was being talked about. It’s normal not to talk to small children about death, and I remember being young enough that there were things so terrible no one would explain them to me. I remember how frightened I felt about the things I was not allowed to know, and how unreasonable and threatening the world seemed.

Normal people don’t take children to funerals. My son was four when his great grandmother died. I took him to see her at the funeral parlour, because I wanted him to understand what was going on. I took him to the funeral and to her burial. For quite a while thereafter, she was the great granny who went in a box in the ground, and he was ok with that. We talked a bit about how no one really knows what happens when you die, and that it’s ok not to know, and nothing to be afraid of.

That autumn featured a dead crow – hit by a car – which proceeded to decompose at the end of our road, on the pavement we walked down to get to school. He dealt with this by writing a song about it, and we talked about why it isn’t a good idea to get in the way of cars. He’s always been very, very sensible about traffic.

When a friend of ours died, too young, and I was asked to be the celebrant at her funeral, my son stepped up to help where other adults were unable to – unafraid by the size of the gathering for a start.

We’re able to talk about death. He knows my funeral preferences. (In order of preference, air burial, eaten by a vulture, naked in a foetal position and covered in ochre, shroud, cardboard coffin).

My philosophy has always been that if a child asks a question, then they need an answer. They need a good, solid sort of answer that won’t set them up for confusion later on. Whether it’s sex, death, infinity, terrorism, or anything else big or scary, they need something that makes sense in a language that does not overly distress them. By normal parenting standards, I’ve been an outrageous over-sharer. But I’ve got a teenage son who has known about menstruation for so long that it’s no big deal to him.

I’ve also got a teenage son who trusts me, because he’s not at the moment going through the process of establishing just how much I lied to him when he was growing up. I’ve got a teenager who can take my authority when I need to pull rank, because he knows I won’t bullshit him or fob him off with answers that are more about my comfort than his. It turns out that’s worth a great deal.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

20 responses to “Talking to children about death

  • Aurora J Stone

    This is a sensible and very practical way of dealing with matters of immense significance. Children know more than we know they know. It seems unwise not to let them know we know they know and learn from their understanding, which is at times far deeper and way broader than our own.

  • Laura Perry

    Yes. If they’re able to formulate the question, then they deserve an honest and direct (though age-appropriate) answer.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Sensible not to make a big mystery out of it, and to help them understand some of the difficult things, before they have to experience it, and get caught unawares.

  • bone&silver

    ‘Normal’ people SHOULD talk about Death; it should be part of our daily life & culture, as we are all dying, like Nature does. It is our Western fear of death & complete denial of it which is causing us to make such stupid decisions re the environment & our resource-use, in my opinion. And don’t get me started on religions which compound the fear & denial! 😐
    Well done for raising your boy right; my teenage son too knows what I want, where my Will is, & even what music I want played ❤🙏🏼

  • Argenta

    I feel the same way about this topic, but wanted to join in the discussion with a somewhat different possible outcome.

    My daughter was only three when an acquaintance died. (She had literally met him a couple of times beforehand.) But, regardless of how openly, how often and how calmly we talked about it, she has been terrified of death ever since. The only thing that managed to help a bit was reading (and re-reading, and re-reading again) Harry Potter. From this she learned that to fight death is the most unnatural and dangerous thing to do, and the idea of “moving on” (as with Dumbledore) helped with panic attacks. She is 12 now and still has a hard time with dying in any form or discussion. Even change is difficult for her.

    On the other hand, her younger brother, who listened in to some of the conversations, was calmed and reassured by this approach. He has never had a single problem with the idea of mortality or death.

    My conclusion was that it ultimately depends on each child separately, and the challenges they have to face.

  • Lunapo

    This is how I’m raising my two, ages 4 and 1.5. My 4 yo explained where babies come from based on what I told her: daddy gives mommy a seed that goes into an egg and then the seed and egg grow into a baby. She didn’t ask for mechanics, she asked where babies come from between the Eather and being big in a Mama’s belly. Had she asked how the seed goes into the egg, I would have been ok with mechanics. But she didn’t. One day she will and that’s good. She also knows what menstruation is. My son is aware of it happening. She also knows about death and has a calm response to it: our bodies die but our spirits go back to the Eather.

    It’s good to know at the end of this, I’ll have functional adults able to handle the world rather than scared giant children who can’t…

    Thanks for sharing

  • lornasmithers

    I don’t have children myself but think if I did would share a similar philosophy. My parents rarely spoke about death and I’ve only recently begun to broach the subject with them to make them aware of my funeral plans and attempt to encourage them to set theirs in order (what kind of a world do we live in?!).

  • Atoughmomsblog

    My son passed away before my daughter was born. She’s only two now, but I have been worried on what to tell her when she does ask where is bubba? This article was EXTREMELY helpful. I’m sharing this as well. Thank you.

  • AutumnWolfe

    I wish my parents had the courage you have. My mother died when I was very young and for the longest time the answer to any question about what happened was “you were told the same thing as your brother.” My brother is 9 years older then me. Talking to a 13 year old about death should not and can not be the same as talking to a 3 year old. They don’t have the same level of comprehension, and later I learned a lot that changed my way of seeing my mother and how I was treated. You are giving your offspring a chance to see the world the way it is at safe levels and that is awesome.

    • Nimue Brown

      Thank you for sharing this. What on earth were they thinking? Your three year old self, and your child self must have needed far more information as you went along – it sounds to me like this was about the comfort of the adults involved, only.

  • 6ammom

    My son’s dad died in war when he was 3-months old. By the time we moved to California, he was about five. He experienced the death of someone close to him – my current husband’s younger brother. Suicide abroad in college. We told him about this – the sad truth that sometimes when people are sad, they hurt themselves because they don’t know what else to do. Then we told him about his dad and the war. A few years later he experienced the death of someone else he knew – a cousin by a motorcycle accident, and we taught them that.

    I also let him in on the news. When the Orlando Club shooting happened, I told him about that. He was about six or seven, I believe. I told him about the boy that got, at the time they thought, consumed by the alligator.

    Would I tell that kind of stuff to my four-year old? No. I’m a Child Development and Education major, and I know what is developmentally appropriate for children. They cannot comprehend that kind of stuff. However, around five years old they begin to develop a concept of the world around them. You can ‘tell’ a child and explain to them what has happened and why. These are great teaching lessons for children.

    I don’t believe in sticking kids in a safe bubble. My sister-in-law does this with her kids, and they run amok – no care because they think nothing bad ever happens in this world. I tell my now eight-year old everything. We watch the news together. We go to funerals. I take my four-year old to funerals because I usually have to, but he has no concept of death. When I tried telling him about my oldest’s dad, he was like, “YOU MEAN DADDY?” I was like, “Um, no. Not YOUR daddy.” He didn’t understand, and he just kind of forgot about it.

    But the thing is that he KNOWS, even if he doesn’t know-know yet. If that makes sense.

    For my oldest, I used my brother-in-laws death as a way to talk about sadness, suicide and talking to people about your feelings. For the death of his dad I talked about war. For his cousin’s death I talked about motorcycles and accidents. For the Club Orlando shooting I talked about why people can hate people that are different from them, and also about terrorism.

    Not a lot of people agree with me. They think I am scaring my children or making them sad about life. Honestly, I’d rather them know that bad things happen than wander out into the world believing that they are invincible and the everything is happy Disneyland like my sister-in-laws kids.

    • Nimue Brown

      thank you for sharing this. totally with you on this – and it depends so much on the individual child, too, but if they’re old enough to notice and to care, they need something to help them grasp what’s going on. I was asking about death by the time I was three, and no one wanted to deal with it…

  • smarciz

    I think my son (whos 7 now) is just now adjusting to understanding with true understanding of death. We have never hidden it from him. Most of his early knowledge came from the crime shows my in-laws constantly had playing on tv when they babysat. Every ambulance he saw he would tell us he knew what was going on and all about the dead bodies and how they were killed. It was a weird disassociation with it. Then my husband’s grandma died. that was his first real dose of death that he could kinda grasp (he was 5). We didn’t take him to the service just because it was a long one. However, he has gone to visit her grave a few times and he talks with her. This past May my father died. While he didn’t remember meeting him ( he was a month old) I always made sure he felt connected to my dad. He felt sadness, but it wasn’t until the memorial he got emotional. We did a spreading of his ashes and this caused some confusion for him because how would he talk to him like babcia (husbands grandma) if there was no gravestone. Overall I think he is not worse off because we exposed him to life both the positives and negatives.

  • jeanmariejots

    I am not a parent yet but I work as a nanny currently and have worked with children and youth of all ages. I do my best to give honest answers whenever I am asked a question. I also have learned to be honest if I don’t know the answer or need to do more research and I have found that children and teens respect me being honest with them and sometimes mirror this response when they are asked something they are unsure about.

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