By Jamie Bellenoit, PhD, LMFT
Executive Director at CCGC
The other night, as I was finishing up bedtime with my 6-year-old son, he surprised me by quickly blurting out this question: “Mommy, do kids die?” I was caught off guard. I was tired after a long day and my mind was already moving on to the list of things I had to get done once the kids were asleep, but I knew this was an opportunity for me to have a rare, quiet, one-to-one talk with him about something significant for all of us, but especially little ones as they grow into the healthy adults we want them to be.
As parents, we all want to protect our kids from the hardships of life for as long as we can. I know, for me, childhood already seems to be going by way too quickly and I think kids are forced to grow up way more quickly than we did at that age. But, unfortunately, death is one of those subjects that none of us can avoid, and sooner or later, your child is going to figure out that there’s a difference between the young and the old, the sick and the healthy, the living and deceased. When kids broach tough subjects like death with us, our natural instinct is to soft-pedal the truth. This is actually the opposite of what we should do. Solid parent/child relationships are based on many things, not the least of which is trust.
Trust is earned in those difficult moments where kids look to us for guidance.
To start the discussion, know that many kids do well with real-life metaphors to help understand this difficult topic. One mom I know, whose father recently passed away after an illness, told her kids that grandpa’s batteries stopped working and, unlike toys, we can’t replace batteries on people. Through this metaphor they immediately understood that his death was permanent and unchangeable. Another metaphor I like is the seasons: here in New England, we get to experience 4 very distinct seasons, and, as we know, autumn is marked by the once lush, vibrant green leaves turning all different colors before falling off of their branch. When leaves fall off of branches they cannot be reattached, and in the same way a person who dies cannot be brought back to life. These kinds of explanations can make death something that is more knowable and familiar, and take away some of the abstraction that children find hard to process.
A follow up for this conversation may involve invoking your own personal religious beliefs. The concept of heaven or another name for the afterlife may be appropriate, if your family subscribes to the belief of an afterlife. If this is the case, children may be comforted by being told that the deceased person is in heaven where they can watch over those of us still on earth. Afterwards, you can continue to process and find closure by writing letters to the person you’ve lost, sending balloons to visit them, or just sitting and listening quietly to see if you can see or hear any signs of the person “talking” to us from heaven. When it comes to big ideas like this, you can also let your kids decide for themselves. In this case you might say something like, “No one knows for sure. Some people think you go to heaven when you die, while others believe people come back on earth as different creatures. What do you think?” This leaves the door open for your child to tell you what they’ve already been thinking, which could lead to even more rich conversation.
As important as these conversations are, it’s important to note that most research suggests that the concept of a person being dead physically but alive in a spiritual place is too abstract for most kids under age 5. Research also shows that children go through a series of stages in their understanding of death, and knowing about those stages can help to guide how we address kids’ questions when they arise.
Preschool children usually see death as reversible, temporary, and impersonal. Watching cartoon characters on television miraculously rise up whole again after having been crushed or blown apart tends to reinforce this notion.
Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to realize that death is final and that all living things die, but still they do not see death as personal. They harbor the idea that somehow they can escape through their own ingenuity and efforts. During this stage, children also tend to personify death. They may associate death with a skeleton or the angel of death, and some children have nightmares about them.
From nine or ten through adolescence, children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die, and that they, too, will die someday. Some begin to work on developing philosophical views of life and death. Teenagers, especially, often become intrigued with seeking the meaning of life. Some youngsters react to their fear of death by taking unnecessary chances with their lives. In confronting death, they are trying to overcome their fears by confirming their “control” over mortality.
As with any sensitive subject, we must seek a delicate balance that encourages children to communicate – a balance that lies somewhere between avoidance and confrontation, a balance that isn’t easy to achieve. It involves:
- being sensitive to their desire to communicate when they’re ready
- trying not to put up barriers that may inhibit their attempts to communicate
- offering them honest explanations even when we are obviously upset
- listening to and accepting their feelings
- not putting off their questions by telling them they are too young
- trying to find brief and simple answers that are appropriate to their questions; answers that they can understand and that do not overwhelm them with too many words.
Perhaps most difficult of all, talking to our kids about death involves examining our own feelings and beliefs so that we can talk to them as naturally as possible when the opportunities arise. By talking to our children about death, we may discover what they know and do not know – if they have misconceptions, fears, or worries. We can then help them by providing needed information, comfort, and understanding. Talk does not solve all problems, but without talk we are even more limited in our ability to help. What we say about death to our children, or when we say it, will depend on their ages and experiences. It will also depend on our own experiences, beliefs, feelings, and the situations we find ourselves in, for each situation we face is somewhat different. Some discussions about death may be stimulated by a news report or a television program and take place in a relatively unemotional atmosphere; other talks may result from a family crisis or school shooting and be charged with emotions. Regardless of when this difficult topic comes up in your family, it is okay to let your children know that you don’t have all of the answers. The best you can do is share what you truly believe. If your child asks you a question about death that you don’t have an answer to, an honest “I just don’t know the answer to that one” is completely appropriate.
Communication about death, as with all communication, is easier when a child feels that they have our permission to talk about the subject and believes we are sincerely interested in their views and questions. Encourage them to communicate by listening attentively, respecting their views, and being open to their questions. Don’t avoid the word “death” itself. Help children become comfortable saying and hearing it. Making it taboo only makes it more uncomfortable and scary. And again, be honest. Recently, after our family went to see the Disney movie “Coco”, a story about a young boy who goes to visit his deceased relatives in the afterlife, my 5 year old asked if my husband and I could die. I told him it’s extremely unlikely, that we are healthy and young, and we are very careful about not putting ourselves in danger. But I didn’t say no, we won’t die. As much as I wanted to comfort him, I knew that lying would’ve just given him false reassurance and would have led to distrust when he found out the truth.
So, at the end of that long day when my 6-year-old asked me if kids die, I thought about all these things and the possible answers I could give, and then I told him that was a good question. I asked him what he thought, and he told me he didn’t know any kids who had died. I then told him honestly that kids can and do die if they get sick or severely injured and their bodies cannot work anymore, but that we do everything we can to keep our bodies and minds healthy. His answer? In typical 6-year-old fashion, he simply said “Can you turn off my lamp when you leave?” The conversation had satisfied his need to know in that moment. It wasn’t lengthy or particularly difficult, it got the job done, and off to dream about superheroes he went. With all children, we can never know in advance what questions tomorrow will bring, but we can be ready to greet those questions with curiosity, love, and honesty when they come.