Children asking question about death

Helping Children with Questions about Death

By Dr. Tamara Soles

It was bedtime. We were cuddling in the dark, having completed our usual bedtime rituals. After a few minutes of silence, I heard my then 5-year-old son’s voice, “Mommy, what happens when you die?”

 

While that question caught me by surprise, these existential bedtime bombs are familiar to many parents. 

 

Discussing death with children can be a challenging and delicate task, and (much as it did for me) the questions often come up unexpectedly. Bedtime is a common time for such questions and while the cynical side of me admits there may be some stalling involved, for many kids, being near a caregiver in the dark makes room for greater vulnerability. 

 

While this topic is inherently complex, young children are naturally curious and ask a lot of questions, providing an important window of opportunity for those of us who care for children. 

 

It is our responsibility to seize the moment and approach this sensitive topic with empathy and honesty, while providing children with the information they need to navigate the complicated feelings connected to this inevitable part of life.

Here are five strategies to help you answer children’s questions about death in a compassionate and age-appropriate manner:

 

  1. Be Honest, Yet Age-Appropriate: When faced with questions about death, it is important to strike a balance between honesty and information that is developmentally appropriate. Tailor your response to provide a clear and simple explanation the child can comprehend. Give information in small doses, giving more information as they ask questions. Don’t tell them a different story to protect them from the realities of life. Remember, children can sense when they are not being told the whole truth.

 

  1. Use Clear Language: Children may find abstract concepts surrounding death difficult to grasp. Use concrete language to help them understand that death means the end of life and is a natural part of the cycle. Explaining death as the brain and body no longer working can help simplify the concept and ease their understanding. Avoid euphemisms, as this may lead to confusion or even fear. While it can be uncomfortable, using the words “dead” or “died” can help the child’s grieving process more than “crossed over,” “passed away,” or “went to sleep.”

 

  1. Encourage Questions and Emotions: It is crucial to create an open and supportive environment where children feel comfortable expressing their emotions. Encourage them to ask questions and reassure them that their feelings, whether sadness, anger, or confusion, are valid. Offer comfort and provide age-appropriate outlets for their grief, such as drawing, writing, singing, or simply talking about their emotions. Remember, it is okay to say, “I don’t know.” It is common for children to show very little initial reaction, as they process the news. Expect any possible emotional response. Conversations around death are often ongoing and questions continue to arise over time. 

 

  1. Utilize Analogies: Analogies can be powerful tools to help children understand complex concepts. You can use metaphors such as comparing life to a storybook with a beginning, middle, and end, or likening death to the changing seasons, where everything eventually returns to nature (see one of my favorite secular books about death as seasons here). Analogies help children relate to something familiar, making the concept of death less abstract and more comprehensible.

 

  1. Address Cultural and Religious Beliefs: Families often have diverse cultural and religious beliefs surrounding death. If a family follows specific customs or traditions, it is important to explain them to children in a way they can understand. Share stories, rituals, or symbols that represent your family’s beliefs and values. However, it is equally important to emphasize that people from different backgrounds have different beliefs and that all perspectives should be respected. Use phrases such as “I like to believe…” and ask questions about what they would like to believe. 



As always, adding books to your toolbox is a helpful way to begin a conversation safely and with enough emotional distance that it allows a child to feel safe and ask questions when they are ready.

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