Talking to kids about death

An Aussie dad and his son’s unrelenting and morbid questions about death.

talking to kids about death

Dinosaurs are awesome. We all know it, even the kids. This is why just about every kid is obsessed with them.

Unfortunately for us parents, dinosaurs are also very, very dead.

Why is this unfortunate? Well, sooner or later, your kid will ask: “Can we see dinosaurs?”

And the conversation begins…

“Can we see dinosaurs?”

 

“No, we can’t.”

 

Conversation over, right? Wrong.

 

“Why not?”

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“They’re extinct.”

 

…That’s not going to help either.

 

“What’s ‘extinct’?”

 

“It means they aren’t around anymore.”

 

Fingers crossed your kid doesn’t care what happened to them.

 

“Where did they go?”

 

Of course, they’ll want to know. What sort of halfwit wouldn’t be curious?

 

“They didn’t go anywhere.”

 

This is getting desperate.

 

“So why can’t we see them?”

 

And we’re back where we started.

 

“Well, a long, long time ago all the dinosaurs died.”

 

Oh no, now you’ve spilt the beans.

 

“What’s ‘died’ mean?”

 

“You know how animals run around, eat, breathe and do stuff. When things die, they can’t do anything.”

 

“… but…”

 

“So, want to watch Dinotrux?”…

The death talk comes for all

That conversation didn’t put the death talk to bed for our three-year-old son.

We had to discuss it quite a bit, whether we were explaining the fate of a flattened pigeon in the middle of the road or how a fish made it from the ocean to his plate.

He watched The Lion King – I thought it was about animals singing Elton John tunes, not murderous brothers – and had to tell him, “No, Mufasa won’t be getting back up.”

Our son wasn’t too anxious about the death of animals, animated or real. He didn’t twig that, being animals, humans are destined to die too (I’ve never claimed he’s advanced).

It was only when another kid at preschool’s grandad died that he realised death was a problem for humans. From there, it was a short leap to worrying about his own grandparents dying.

I don’t like talking about death myself.

My favourite line about our mortality is from the author Vladimir Nabokov: “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

It’s hardly a comforting quote for a kid.

I decided to go to an expert. I asked my old man – father of six, a former school counsellor and psychologist – how you should explain death to preschoolers.

His response: “I’ve never really thought about it.” In his defence, he worked with older children. Though he did raise six kids.

I decided to go to the experts online. The consensus seems to be, don’t bullshit your children. What you consider bullshit depends on your own outlook.

What the internet thinks about death

On some religious websites, parents are told that death is an opportunity to talk to children about God’s love.

You can tell them they’ll meet Granny in heaven and read them books about caterpillars turning into butterflies.

It seems like an easy get out, but down the track there will only be more questions.

Where’s heaven? Why did God take grandma? Why can’t he bring her back? Is God watching me when I do a poo?

Explaining Santa making presents at the North Pole is straightforward by comparison.

One thing most experts agree on: don’t tell kids death is like sleeping. Tell them that, and they’ll be asking when Rover will wake up or whether we’ll hear grandpa snoring from his coffin.

No, you can’t cheat death (or lie about it)

Kids are best off if you lose the euphemisms.

Say grandpa is “in a better place”, and they’ll worry you might want to go there too.

Tell them grandma has “gone away” and they’ll expect her to come back – or wonder why you’re burying her.

One helpful site points out, “While the permanency of death is not yet fully understood, a child may think that death means separation, and separation from parents and the loss of care involved are frightening.”

It goes on to say, if your child is worried you might die and leave them, assure them, “I expect to be here to take care of you as long as you need me, but if I did die, there are lots of people to take care of you.”

So far, our kid has only asked about grandparents dying – at first children associate death with older people.

Now we tell him that we expect them to be around for a long time yet. We tell him that death isn’t something that he needs to worry about – but when they do die, he’ll still be able to think about all the fun that they had together.

This is how I feel about my own grandparents dying.

All of them gone for ten years now, the pain of their passing has fallen away and the richness of my memories has only grown stronger. I know I’m lucky to have had them in my life.

I only hope my kids feel the same way when my parents die.

Because, God knows, I’ll need their happy memories and smiling faces to help me cope when that time comes.

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