How to Talk to Your Kid About Death (Firsthand Advice From an Expert)
Here’s a confession: When my longtime friend died of breast cancer several years ago, instead of explaining to my 4-year-old son Zachary what had happened, I considered… not telling him. I know this sounds awful, but part of me hoped he simply wouldn’t notice. After all, Sara wasn’t his friend – and we only saw her and her daughter a couple of times a year because they lived a few towns away. My plan was to drop him at Grandma’s during the funeral (I’d be “at brunch”) and act as normal as possible afterward. In fact, I’d already done some deceiving: When Sara was going through chemotherapy and my son asked why she was wearing scarves on her head, I lamely lied, “Because she thinks they’re really pretty.”
Like many parents, the thought of talking to my kid about death seemed as appealing as the prospect of talking to him about sex, and the urge to protect him from the tragic knowledge that a mom with a kid his own age can die almost led me to lie again. But then I imagined him watching his birthday videos and seeing Sara feeding him pizza or lifting him into the air while they both laughed hysterically, and my son asking, “Why doesn’t Sara come to my birthday parties anymore?” and my mumbling, “Oh, um, you see, actually… she died last year.” How’s that for establishing trust?
That night, I told him the truth, in an age-appropriate way. Since then, I’ve seen many parents in my practice who need some guidance on how to talk to their kids about death without lying, freaking out, changing the subject, or using distraction (“Is that the ice cream truck I hear?”). So here are some of the questions my son asked about Sara that night, and what I said… without lying, freaking out, changing the subject, or pretending to hear the ice cream truck.
Zachary: Why did Sara die?
Me: Most people die because they’re very old and just like toys get old and don’t work anymore, bodies get old and don’t work anymore, either. That’s how most people die. Sara died because she got very, very sick – not with the flu, or a cold, or something we all get better from.
Zachary: What did she have?
Me: She had something called cancer. Often doctors can help people with cancer get better. Grandma had cancer and she’s all better. But Sara had a kind of cancer that the doctors tried to make better but couldn’t.
Zachary: Will Ava [Sara’s daughter] get her mommy back?
Me (Wanting to sob and say, “Is that the ice cream truck?”): No, she won’t get her mommy back. Once people die – just like plants, or goldfish, or dogs – they don’t come back. She’ll keep living with her daddy who loves her so much.
Zachary: So she won’t have a mommy?! That’s so sad! Will she be sad for the rest of her life?
Me: I’m sure that she’s very sad now. She’ll probably always miss her mommy and have happy thoughts about all the fun things she used to do with her mommy, but she won’t be sad all the time. She’ll do all the things she used to do, like go to school, play with friends, be with her daddy and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, bike ride, and go to the beach. But she’s sad right now.
Zachary: When will you die?
Me: I hope not until I’m very, very old. Most people live until they’re much older than Sara. Grandma and Grandpa are in their seventies and we know many people, like all of your friends’ grandparents, who are also much older than Sara and they’re alive.
Zachary: What if you get cancer before you get old?
Me: I would go to the doctor that helped Grandma to get better and let him help me, but most people don’t get cancer. Most people, when they get sick, get the flu or a cold or a stomach ache or a fever and they get better.
Zachary: Will I ever die?
Me: One day when you’re very old and your body stops working because it’s so old, you will die. But that’s a long, long time away.
Zachary: Where do dead people go when they die?
Me: It depends. Often people bury dead people’s bodies in the ground, in a place called a cemetery.
Zachary: Wow. Do bugs eat them?
Me: They’re usually in a container to keep the bugs out. But once somebody is dead, they don’t feel anything anymore so if a bug got in, it wouldn’t bother them.
Zachary: Can they hear? Like if Ava wants to talk to her mommy, can she hear her down there?
Me: Nobody really knows. Some people believe that when people die, their bodies don’t feel anything but that the part of them that loves others becomes what’s called a soul. And some people believe that you can talk to a soul and it will hear you.
Zachary: Oh. What does a soul look like?
Me: Nobody really knows that, either. Some people believe that it’s out there but invisible, and that wherever you are, it can always hear you if you’re somebody that the person who died loved very much.
Zachary: Oh. Do you want to play Legos now?
Me: Sure, and then maybe we can have some ice cream! (Hey, I did my best!)
Of course, the conversation will go differently for different ages and different families, and depending on your kid’s relationship with the deceased (a grandparent, a pet, the nice lady who lived next door and always gave your kid a lollipop) the topic may come up many times over the course of weeks or months. The key thing to remember is that the content matters less than the openness of the conversation. You can help kids feel safe with a balance between answering them truthfully (Grandpa did not “go to sleep”) and not overwhelming them with over-their-head details or long explanations. It also helps just to listen to how they feel and to resist the urge to shunt away their sadness with comments like, “We’ll go to the pet store this weekend and get you another cat.” Most important, if you don’t freak out, neither will your kid.