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Talking to a young child about death

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 

My mother recently passed away.

Our DD just turned 3 in July. She is very verbal and very receptive.

She is very sensitive.

She likes to talk out and process things, but at her own speed.

She likes to figure things out, and know how and why things happen, but she has just started out on the why questions. She doesn't ask why very often yet.


I am wondering about how to talk to her about death.

So far I have told her that Nanny has died and that means that we will not see her again. But that we can see her in pictures, talk about her, tell stories about her and think of her.

She seems fine with that, but is worried that we will die and that she will die.

I started to tell her that eventually we will all die, but that seemed to stress her out because she is three and doesn't know the difference between one week and 10 years. Time is still relatively abstract to her.

So I took it back and said we will not die, that we will be together as a family for a long long time.


How do you talk to toddlers and small children about death? (we are not at all religious people)

Is it ok that I told her that we will not die? My plan is that she will eventually know that one day everyone dies, but wait until she has a concept of time.

At what age should a child know that everything and everybody dies at some point?

I want her to know that she can be sad that her grandmother dies, but at the same time let her know that it is OK that she died (so as not to traumatize her about death). That is a fine line.



post #2 of 19

I don't have a lot of time to post, but wanted to chime in because this was one of the more delicate and difficult things for me to address with my DD.  Probably more difficult for me than her.  I know that is going to be the stock and trade answer, but I really do think it depends on the child and also on how you, as the parent feel about what happens to us after we die.


I guess DH and I could be best described as agnostics.  We know that our physical selves die but we don't really have an opinion about post-death.  We just don't know.  That being said, the approach I took with DD was that we simply don't know and that different people have different beliefs about what happens to us post-death.  When this subject comes up (death in the family or whatever) we have simply just said that the dearly departed has gone to the "other side."  We don't know where the other side is but hopefully they will be waiting for us.


I say all this about post-death stuff because, in my mind, it cushions the reality of death.  Maybe I'm doing DD a disservice by doing this, I don't know, but for me it helps put things in context. 


I believe that DD was between 3 and 4 when she started asking questions.  It first came up with dead animals (dead squirrel, dead pigeon, dead bug).  I think I probably blurted out something like "it died" and then she asked me what that meant.  My explanations didn't come all at once, but evolved.  One time we walked through the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum and we had a long conversation about mummies and Egyptian beliefs, etc.  She's almost six now and understands that all living things will die at some point.  It's funny to see how her little mind works, though.  One time last year she told me that when she dies, she's going to bring all of our furniture and books over to the other side with her, because she knows we'll miss it and probably need it.  I guess that Egyptian talk sunk in! 


You know, these are one of those things you take for granted pre-kid.  You don't know until you're faced with it how hard it will be.

post #3 of 19

two important things about something like this:


1. it is going to be hard for you - but you have to let your child process the pain of death. when they start asking these questions there is a mourning period when they fear their and/or their parents and loved ones deaths. you just have to plod on with that. empathise and be there - but give them the chance to mourn and understand that emotion deep within them. otherwise they turn into such messed up adults who have no idea how to emotionally handle mourning. 


2. never lie. or say something you dont believe in. be HONEST. tell her you dont know. you are not sure. it opens up opportunities for them to try to think about it and figure it out. 


other pointers for you.


just answer the question. literally. because we have such a visceral reaction when asked that we read far more into just a simple straight forward question. are you going to die too mommy. yes one day i too will die, but i hope i wont for a very long time so that <if the situation is right, put in some humour here> when dd asked will x die, y die when she was 3 i said eventually yes. but most probably a grandchild will die much later than the grandpa. 


the problem is you dont know when they understand the concept of time. sometimes really it isnt about the concept of time, but the fact that they will NEVER EVER come back again. 


it is also v. helpful to show your own emotions. gives them reassurance and realization while the physical body is gone they live in our hearts and we remember them often. 

post #4 of 19

For many kids, the worry about you dying is also a worry about what will happen to them.


I explained to my kids when they asked that I would die someday, but I was doing a lot of things to keep myself healthy so that I would live to be an old lady and see them all grown up. Since the concept of being grown up is as foreign to them at 3 as the concept of death, that seemed to take a lot of sting out of it. We also talked about plans for them. If I died, then daddy would take care of them. If daddy died, I would still take care of them. When the inevitable question of "what if both of you died?" came up, we explained that they would go live with Aunt M and Uncle J. Friends and relatives would care for them until they could get them to their aunt and uncle's house. Ds was really worried about that interim time. I finally told him "The police will make sure that you're safe until someone can get you." "Will I be able to go to the bathroom at the police station?" "Yes." "Oh, OK." That was the last that I heard of it. Once he was sure that his basic needs (including going to the bathroom) were going to be met, he relaxed a bit.

post #5 of 19

My son had just turned three when my parents spent 20 minutes with him alone in another room. There they (apparently) told him I was going to die. It changed our lives permanently.

He had extreme separation anxiety for a year and four months. It was like starting over with an infant in a three year old body. He remained emotionally behind from that point until he was about ten. Now, at sixteen, no one would ever know anything like that happened, but it was torture going through those early years.

The reason our lives changed permanently has more to do with how my husband (and father to said child) decided to behave from that point on, but that's another story.

I encourage you to follow your instincts. You felt she was not handling the information well, so you backed off. Leave it there!

You'll know when she's ready to handle more information. For now, let her just accept that she's not going to be seeing her grandmother any more. That's enough to mourn. She can mourn death itself when she has enough emotional development.

Who would care for her in your absence? Does she have a good relationship with that person or people? Make sure of that before springing "we all die" on her!!!!
post #6 of 19

DD was 2 1/2 when I told her everyone dies, and she was somewhat upset about it - not traumatized, but she probably cried a little about it a couple of times and said a couple of times that she wished she didn't have to die.  I told her that everyone wishes that.  I don't remember exactly how and when DS learned we all die, but I know he knew it as a 3 year old.  The knowledge hasn't ever seemed to bother him very much.  I've mostly talked as if people always live a long time and die when they're very old, but I haven't ever lied and said it's impossible for a kid to die, and I'm sure my kids realized pretty early on that it could, in theory, happen to them. 


My opinion is that the earlier a kid learns about death, the easier it is.  At 3, a kid might be upset about it, but she's not going to be able to stay focused on it for long.  And if she learns the truth at 3 she won't have the shock of suddenly being faced with the idea that she will die when she's old enough to reflect on the subject at great length, consider all the implications, and imagine in detail how she would feel if someone she loved died or if she herself were dying.  She might still go through a period of being worried about death when she's older, but my kids (6 and 9 now) haven't yet.  It's been old news to them for a long time, so they don't spend much time thinking about it.

post #7 of 19
Every child is different and the OP already started to tell her child and noticed signs that she was getting hit emotionally. In that case, the best thing to do is back off the issue.

When my son was older, about 8, maybe younger, he understood and was not traumatized. As I said before, follow your instincts.
post #8 of 19
Originally Posted by LynnS6 View Post

For many kids, the worry about you dying is also a worry about what will happen to them.

truedat.gif Absolutely. when dd brought up death the first thing i did was ask her what she wanted if i died. she chose a friend of mine. and we went and spoke to that friend and dd knew she would be taken care of. 


this is just the beginning. you will hear more and more about death. dd still brings up how she doesnt want me to die. and i always tell her yes it will be hard but you will be ok. at almost 10 i can do this. mainly coz we have handled every facet of death including culture from all over the world. 


dont try to jump in and try to fix things. 


with regards to death and other things in life i have discovered my dd REALLY appreciates the 'i dont know' answers from me. then we both put our thinking caps together and try to figure it out if we can. 


her gpa died just a couple of years after she started asking about death. she did much better with his death than most of his adult sons. 

post #9 of 19
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the replies.

Yes, I think I will keep it as it is. Knowing my DD, this is just the start of our conversations as she processes the loss of her grandmother.

My DD usually processes things slowly and deliberately.


When she asked me if I would die and if she would die I said yes at first. Then she started to show signs of extreme anxiety and just said "But I want to see you tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day....." and on and on until the repeated it about 40 times. I said she will see me all of those days. She continued to be anxious, and since it was during our bedtime routine (when she seems to do all of her talking and processing) I just said that we will not die.


Because of the death, there has also been alot of upheaval in her life. We all spent time away from home, at a hospital, staying in a hotel, and then me gone for a few days to my fathers to help him settle things. All of this caused anxiety in her already.


I think that when the grieving over my mother's death calms down, and the talk about death can be more abstract, I will get her talking about how all living things die sometime.

It is hard for her to process that my mother died and that she will never see her again and then learn that I too will die.


But please. Keep the conversation going, as this is something that all of us will have to deal with at some time and I really do need the ideas to keep the conversation going and growing over time as her comprehension grows.

post #10 of 19

First of all, I am so, so sorry for your loss. I hope you are well.


This is something that we have had to deal with recently. DD lost her little brother in April. It made for a double whammy of telling her about death and not being able to explain that it's something that happens when you get old. DD's first death experience will likely be very memorable and is likely to shape her relationship with death for the rest of her life. I know mine did. I was 4 when my Aunt Emmy died. It's one of my very first visual memories that I can remember every single detail of- everything everyone wore, the church, the color of her dress, the things my parents told me, etc.


I don't have a lot of advice about the worrying, but as far as not being religious people, we have that in common- which has given me my own list of questions that I dont have answers to. We didn't explain it when things were going on, because we didnt feel like it was appropriate. Of course, after things calmed down a bit, she began to realize that she wasnt on a grandparent vacation and wanted to know where DS was. Everyday she was asking for him, asking why he wasnt here, who was nursing him, etc. "I don't know" was our first response, and after that we started to come up with places he could be. As people who aren't religious, that became things like this:

"Charlie's in our hearts"

"Charlie's in the trees and the wind"

"Charlie is gone, but we can still think of him and look at his picture"

"Charlie visited us for a while, and wasnt it great?"


She sometimes gets very upset about where he is- why he is unattainable. She will say things like, "Get Charlie out of my heart so I can SEE him". She has outbursts where she cries because she thinks he should be here too. These things are just her way of grieving, and while it's difficult to see her be upset, when it comes to little ones, we have to remember that they miss the person too and sometimes cant articulate it as well.


And sometimes, she's matter of fact when people ask her things like, "Are you going to get a little brother?" and she responds , "my Charlie's in my heart" and pats her chest. That was the phrase that SHE became attached to- we said numerous different things, and that one is the one she repeated back to us the most, which has made us pick it up as well :) It's amazing what children can understand- and with very little information. 



Originally Posted by meemee View Post


2. never lie. or say something you dont believe in. be HONEST. tell her you dont know. you are not sure. it opens up opportunities for them to try to think about it and figure it out. 


I completely agree with this. It's really hard to not give answers, or to say you don't know, but it's honest.

post #11 of 19
I'm very sorry for your loss.

I highly recommend the book "When A Pet Dies" by Fred Rogers (that's Mr. Rogers). It deals honestly and simply with the subject of death for a young child.
post #12 of 19
I, too, am sorry for your loss. I hope, over time, it gets better for all of you.
post #13 of 19

I'm really sorry about your mom.


I'm in kind of a weird position because I am estranged from most of my family. I have a lot of suicides in my close family. We're not a happy bunch. My daughter is four now and she asks about various people a lot. We have no contact with our biological families on either side so our kids are really pretty fuzzy on what "family" is and my daughter is very confused as to whether or not we have parents or ever had parents. She asks a lot of questions about my parents and it is awkward to deal with. I was severely abused by my parents. So when my daughter asks me if I am sad that my dad is dead... that's kind of awkward. I tell her unreservedly that I am sad my brother is dead. I don't want to lie to my kids, ever. That was one of the most toxic parts of my childhood--the constant lying about everything.


So death is a weird topic here. So far I have said that people are animals too and all animals die some day. Our internal organs have to work very hard to keep us running--we are kind of like machines. Eventually the machine can't keep going any more. Sometimes something gets broke funny early and people die before they get old, but that's unusual. Sometimes people have accidents--that happens. Mostly people get to live and love each other for a long time. Then you go back into the earth to help build more people.


That's all I have to give.

post #14 of 19

Sorry for your loss.


It will be helpful not to talk much abouth the topic and dont use the word "death" that much..she is still to young and that kind of thing is still too much to handle for her.

We are in the modern world now, through watching television and some good guidance from parents,. kids will eventually have an idea about death.

In our culture, we usually tell the kids the kids that " Grandfather is maybe gone but he will always be there watching us from heaven."

And also the Angel thing..that after death people became an angel.  smile.gif

post #15 of 19

Adaline's mommy I am so sorry for your loss. just the sweet way you put it made me bawl. 


Rightkindofme - words fail me for all that you have to go through. i wanted to say how sorry i am. 


OP i am sorry that you lost your mommy. I am not sure if you were close to your mom or not, but i would be devastated. 


make sure your dd sees your grief. share your grief with her. be open about it. next time - if there is a next time (sounds terrible - sorry about that) - and someone is ill and dying make sure you include your dd in the process. it really helps them with their grieving process. and you will be surprised how well they can cope after they go through their own grieving process.


your dd will know something is up as she sees you grieve bu she will not understand it. so share a ritual. if you want to cry dont hide. i used to invite my brother and father at our dinner table by putting place sittings for them and initially i would cry as we ate dinner and told stories, but eventually we'd be laughing over their antics. even today somedays at that peaceful space when you share the silence with each other, dd asks me to tell her stories about my dad and brother. we still talk about her grandparents whom she took care of when they were in hospice and even 5 years later she still cries over them. and laughs too and goes awww at special memories. 

post #16 of 19
Originally Posted by proudMoMmy2634 View Post

Sorry for your loss.


It will be helpful not to talk much about the topic and dont use the word "death" that much..she is still to young and that kind of thing is still too much to handle for her.

We are in the modern world now, through watching television and some good guidance from parents,. kids will eventually have an idea about death.

In our culture, we usually tell the kids the kids that " Grandfather is maybe gone but he will always be there watching us from heaven."

And also the Angel thing..that after death people became an angel.  smile.gif

I disagree with this. It may be appropriate for a child who has never experienced death, but not one who as. As far as death being "too much to handle" for a small child- having someone disappear from your life with zero explanation is a lot to ask anyone to handle, let alone a young child.

When a child has gone through a loss, ignoring the topic and not letting them know that they are free to discuss it whenever they want can be very confusing to them. IMO, young children need their space to grieve as well. If you never bring the topic up and rely on culture and television to do it for you/with you, that is something that can be really terrifying to a kid, because unless you control your child's every movement YOU might not be the person that is right there with them when they first understand death on the television.


Also, OP, like myself, isn't religious. We've intentionally stayed away from telling our daughter that DS is in heaven, because we dont believe that. I don't believe that my child is an angel looking down on us, so I wouldn't tell my daughter that because IMO it would be lying to her.

post #17 of 19
Thread Starter 

Thank you everyone for your thoughts.

And thank you for sharing your personal journeys in death with me/us.

Adaline'sMama. My heart goes out to you and your family for the incredible pain you all must be going through in the loss of your sweet baby.


I am weirdly handling my Mum's passing very well. Too well in fact. I think I am going through an emotional denial or something. I have yet to grieve, or really even feel sad. The only moments I have felt sad is when I think of my DD not remembering my Mum. Or when I think of the two babies my partner is pregnant with not ever meeting her. Or my Mum not meeting the twins she was excited about.


Unfortunately we were not able to have my DD take part in the death. It happened very very fast. She went into hospital and was dead within 36 hours. We were there for the last 12 hours, but I did not allow DD into the room as it wasn't even close to pleasant. It was an ICU with my mother in obvious distress and pain. Way too scary for a 3 yr old. Maybe if she was a bit younger or a bit older. But right now her imagination has taken hold but is still very under-developed.


She hasn't spoken about it again yet. If she doesn't bring it up in the next few days I plan to gradually bring it up. Talk about how we miss Nanny, how we can see Grampy but will not see Nanny anymore because she has died and gone. Talk about how we can talk about her and remember her in our minds and hearts. And just bring it up here and there until it is common knowledge.

I do want her to know that all living creatures eventually die. But I do not want her to have anxiety that she is going to die or that me and my partner will die. At this point, she does not even have the concept that a few days are. I cannot get her to understand a weekend. So I do not think she can comprehend that we will die at a later time.

post #18 of 19

I would highly recommend a book called Lifetimes:A Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie.

The book compares the lifespans of all types of organisms from plants to animals to people. What is "in between" the beginning and ending of a life is living. Because of that emphasis on the "in between", it manages to strike a positive note about every lifetime no matter how short or long.


Similar to Adaline's Mama, we had no choice but to explain death to our 3.5yo son when his sister was full-term still-born. I don't believe that it is something that should be avoided, but it is very difficult to know how to approach. Ironically, I was able to find a lot of books and resources at the library referencing the death of a grandparent, so that might also be something to look into.


I also agree that in no way is death too much for young children to handle - as with everything else it's a fear of the unknown that is the real issue. If they are not offered any explainations or opportunity to discuss death, they are left with whatever their imagination comes up with!


Peace and healing to you!

post #19 of 19
Thread Starter 

Thank you. We will check out the book.


Things have been going well. We haven't pushed the subject too much, but have let DD talk it out at her pace.

She hasn't really brought her Nanny up much, but we didn't see her too often.

She has brought up the subject of death and dying here and there.

So we are now to the point of talking about how every living thing dies at some point. She isn't ready to talk about people dying yet. Or at least not people she knows dying yet. But we do talk about animals, plants, etc dying. She knows most die and do not come back.

Although, she is much more comfortable with the idea of plants that die and then resurface in the spring.


She is a very bright child. She is also great at talking things out on her terms and at her own pace.

I am very confident that we will have all of this "worked out" sooner rather than later with little or less anxiety.

I do not want to push it too much as DD is already stressed due to my partner being pregnant with twins, a change over the past couple of months in childcare, and a lot of house guest over the past month or so.


But we will check out that book and other books. I do not even know why I didn't think of that. DD LOVES books and we usually use books to discuss topics with her.

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