Changes: Talking with Young Children about Death

This blog is authored by our Director of Infant and Toddler Programs, Melody Passemante Powell. Melody graduated from James Madison University with a BS in Early Childhood Education and earned her MEd in Education Management from Strayer University. She has been working with and for young children for nearly two decades in a variety of roles. In her down time, she enjoys having fun with her two-year-old daughter, wife, and dog Jack.

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog explores the ways in which young children process death and how adults can support them through such a difficult time. The author reflects on her own experience with the death of her mother at a young age and may be triggering to some.


As the philosopher Heraclitus so aptly stated, change is the only constant. Some changes are simple and easy to adapt to, while others might be more complex and can evoke mixed emotions. As our previous blog explored, moving to a new house, welcoming a new sibling, or starting at a new school are changes that would likely cause feelings of nervousness mixed with excitement. Then there are other changes that are incredibly hard and complicated to adapt to, like death. Unlike many other changes in life, death is one change that is often very hard to talk about because it is such a big and complex concept that even many adults have a hard time processing. It can be even more daunting to be tasked with talking to children about death, especially when we ourselves may be dealing with the situation, and potentially grieving at the same time.

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I have always felt drawn to this topic because I have a unique perspective as I lost someone very close to me when I was a young child. I went back and forth about sharing my personal experience, not because I have trouble sharing, but because I worried about making others uncomfortable. As I processed these feelings, I realized they were connected to a norm in my culture: to avoid making others feel sad and uncomfortable. I decided that sharing my experience felt relevant and important. Although like most stories associated with death, it may be hard to read.

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When I was three, my mother died. The situation was even more complicated by the fact that my mother committed suicide. On the day that it happened I had been to play therapy in the morning, where my therapist had told me my mother might try to kill herself again. Unfortunately my mother had tried before and I was aware since I was in the house. On the day my mother died, my Grandma had been tasked with telling me what had happened. After school my Grandma held me on her lap and asked if I had remembered my therapist telling me my mother might try to kill herself again. She let me know that sadly she did today and she died. My Grandma told me that my mother loved me very much, but that she was very sick. She stressed that she had needed grownup help but sadly even that wasn’t enough. My Grandma answered all my questions succinctly without elaboration and took her lead from me.

Later at home in a room of adults I said something to the effect of, “I am sad that mommy killed herself.” My family replied that they were all sad too. I was given space to process and while I do recall being sad, I also remember having a pretty solid understanding that this was permanent and I would not be seeing my mother anymore, likely because this is what I was told. I wasn’t confused because even though it was a very complex concept to grasp, I was given honest, age-appropriate answers about what was going on. My questions were welcomed and I was given a safe space to talk through anything I was feeling or wondering about.

I recognize that my experience is not the same as any other child going through the difficult change of losing someone close to them. Death and grief are deeply personal topics, often connected to our cultures and belief systems. Even within cultures, no two people experience death and grief in the exact same ways. So how do you talk to children about death? Of course it will depend on your personal beliefs, but here are some tips based on my experience, what we know about child development and how young children understand the world around them.

Be honest

Although it can be incredibly hard, being honest with children helps to avoid any confusion. Often what children think about in their own heads may be worse than the actual situation. It is hard to know exactly what to say because every child and situation is different, but here are a few examples of wording you could use in various situations:

Death of an older person or pet: “Sometimes very old living things, people and animals, die because they are very old and their bodies have worn out.”

Sudden death due to illness: “Sometimes people who seem healthy get sick very suddenly. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen sometimes.”

Sudden death due to accident: “Our bodies are very strong but there are some things that can hurt our bodies so badly that we die.”

These phrases would be used within a larger, ongoing conversation, but might be helpful as a starting point for honest, age appropriate communication. Young children are better able to understand complex topics when they are able to make personal connections to things in their life. It can be helpful to reference something they are already familiar with to make a comparison such as a plant that was old and died, a pet that died, or a character in a book or movie.

Welcome questions and follow the child’s lead

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Children are curious by nature, working to understand the world around them. Young children think in concrete terms, so it is best to use clear language and avoid euphemisms that may cause confusion. Phrases like “her body stopped working” or for a child a little older, “her heart stopped pumping blood through her body to keep her alive” are concrete and honest. Phrases like “he is sleeping forever” and “he is up in the clouds now” can cause confusion for children because they will take these literally. Children might worry they may never wake up if they go to sleep. It is normal that children might become nervous or fearful in general when learning about and processing a complex topic like death. When answering questions, be honest, but avoid elaborating unnecessarily. We might think that children need lots of information or we are being dishonest by withholding, but in this case sometime less is more.

Talk about how you are feeling

Everyone grieves in different ways, and talking about your feelings when you are grieving may not be the way you process your emotions, but talking with young children about our feelings is critical for young children. A good rule of thumb is to find times to simply narrate out loud about your feelings. For example, “I am feeling sad about our dog Francis dying. Sometimes when I feel sad, I cry with someone. Other times I just want to be alone.” Mentioning that people grieve in different ways, and even the same person can work through grief in a variety of ways helps children feel safe to feel whatever it is they might be feeling, and safe to talk about those feelings if they wish to. Although it can be difficult at times, not saying anything sends a powerful message to young children that these topics are taboo, and not to be discussed.  over time children begin to make their own assumptions about death and grieving, which may or may not be true. Children as young as infants use social referencing, looking to those they trust in uncertain situations to decide how to act and feel. Showing children that having feelings is a normal, human process, is incredibly important. Some cultures are often taught to suppress emotions, and many children think that crying or feeling sad is not okay, when actually these feelings and expressions are completely normal and healthy ways of coping.

Validate the child’s feelings

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Validation goes hand in hand with talking about our own feelings. When a child has been sent the message from the important adults in his or her life that grieving, and expressing feelings is okay, they will likely feel safe to express their own feelings. There are no right or wrong feelings and there are no right or wrong ways to process complex situations like death. Remind yourself and your child that grief is a non-linear process. Some days we might feel okay, even happy, and other days we might find it unmanageable to get out of bed.

None of this is easy, especially if you have to talk with a young child when you yourself might be grieving. My personal silver lining from my experience with my mother’s death, is that I am able to remember how I felt when I was younger, and to be able to say that when given honest information, and a safe supportive space to work through their feelings, young children can be quite capable of processing big changes like death. Of course as an adult dealing with these topics when we ourselves are stricken with grief is easier said than done. Remember that you are not alone in dealing with this and there are lots of resources out there to use as support.

Resources:

Related Articles & Book Reviews:

Dealing with Death from the Fred Rogers Company

How to Talk to Kids about Death from the Child Development Institute

Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids about Death by Christina Frank 

5 Books to Help Kids Understand Death by Heather Feldstein

Top 10 children’s books on death and bereavement by Holly Webb

64 Children’s Book to Talk about Death and Grief from What’s Your Grief?

Books to Help You Explain Death to Children from Aha! Parenting

Books:

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In a Nutshell by Joseph Anthony – This book is about the life of a tree, and the ways it changes, grows and impacts the nature and earth around it, even after it grows old and dies. This book is more abstract and does not deal with the death of a person or a pet. It is a good conversation starter, and a good reference point to look back to when the time comes that you do need to talk about the death of someone or something close to you and your child. The images are beautiful and very eye catching.

A Mama for Owen by Marion Dane Bauer – Luckily, I have not had to talk with my two year old about the loss of someone we know yet, but I know the time will eventually come. We have a lovely book called “A Mama for Owen” and in the story a baby hippo, Owen, is separated from his mother during a tsunami and he is understandably sad. Eventually he is rescued by humans who take him to a zoo, and he bonds with a very old turtle named Mzee, who basically takes Owen in as his own. My daughter talks frequently about this book. “Owen no Mama” she says in a sad tone, “Owen sad”. I will ask her what happens next, and she enthusiastically says, “Finds turtle Mama! Owen happy!”

No Matter What by Debi Mori – My daughter loves this book as well. This is great book to reinforce that our love for our children persists, no matter what. Dealing with death and loss is hard, and it is important that children are sent the message that they are safe and loved even when things are sad, scary, and confusing.