Discuss: Talking to Toddlers about Death

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Photo of the entrance to the Ferndale Cemetery. A metal gateway arch leads the way to an immediately steep hill covered in headstones and cement borders separating grave sites. Photo Copyright 2008 Anna Rouse.

The photo was taken in my neck of the woods by Anna Rouse. It’s the town cemetery in Ferndale, California. Image used with permission. [See Anna's Pacific Northwest photo set.]

After Thinga-reader Kathleen perused the reading-obituaries-to-a-toddler article posted earlier this week, she asked, “How did you explain death to your 4-year-old???” Her own situation didn’t fair so well.

I get the impression most families are not where my family is with regard to discussing death.

So, this is an open invitation for all Thinga-readers to post their experiences on the subject. What have you tried, and what was the reaction? Or if you’ve avoided the topic, what’s your plan?

To answer Kathleen’s question, I explained death to my daughter when she was 2-years-old. My daughter wanted to know about my brother and my wife’s mother whom she’s never met. She has seen their pictures. She has heard us talk about them. Where are they?

It caught us off-guard, but there was no changing the subject. No sugar coating.

Since then, she has never asked about the possibility of Mom and Dad (my wife and I) dying. I only have a guess as to why, but here it is.

We frequently discuss the people, organizations and rules in our community that help keep people safe and assist when there is trouble.

  • When a fire truck, police car or ambulance whirrs by, we discuss where it might be going.
  • When Mom tells Dad to slow the car down, we discuss road rules that exist to keep people safe.
  • When we see a kitten’s photo in the newspaper, we discuss how the Humane Society finds homes for stray animals.
  • When she visits the polling place with us, we explain voting is about the community deciding on rules and who will be our leaders.
  • When we see helium balloons hanging outside as we drive past a food kitchen, we explain how churches and other organizations help feed people who have lost their jobs or homes.
  • For Hurricane Katrina, we shielded her from the tragedy and scandal of 1,800+ dead, instead focusing only on stories about the helpers.

Our society has many mechanisms to keep people safe, and help people when bad things happen.

And, it’s Mom and Dad’s job to give her rules, take care of her and keep her safe.

When she does something wrong and gets hurt, we remind her that’s why Mom and Dad tell her not to do certain things. Maybe I got hurt doing the same thing as a child, and that’s why she should listen to me, not “because I said so,” but because “Mama and Papa know things.”

And when she wakes up in the middle of the night crying from a  nightmare, Mom or Dad is at her bedside lickety-split. Why? Because we’re here to help and protect her. It’s not a philosophy. We actually tell her that.

She knows that Mom or Dad is always watching over her. If one of us leaves the house, the other parent is with her, or there is a babysitter. I’ve reinforced that fact with her several times. At school, we leave her with the teacher who takes care of her. And, if Mom and Dad die, we have arranged for close friends to take care of her. She knows the couple and she is friends with their two young children.

Death is viewed within the lens of everything else we have taught her about life and society:

There are rules and structure to our community and if you obey those rules, there are people and organizations to help you when you’re in trouble. Just as society has its police, firefighters and doctors, Mom and Dad exist to help her, not just when she’s in trouble, but all of the time. And if anything happens to us, we have planned for that too. It’s a safe and orderly world, at least at 4-years-old.

Just last Saturday, driving around a town-wide garage sale, we turned a corner and saw the side of a hill covered with gravestones. My wife told her that people were buried underneath each marker on the hill.

Photo of the Ferndale Cemetery showing a long hill covered with headstones and cement borders around group grave sites. A narrow road is visible at right on the other side of a fence. Photo Copyright 2008 Amber Mitchell.

The road on the right is the one we found ourselves on Saturday morning. This photo was taken by Amber Mitchell. It’s the town cemetery in Ferndale, California. Image used with permission. [See Amber's Arcata/Humboldt County photo set.]

My daughter wasn’t scared. She was interested, with a touch of disbelief. “There are people under there?” And a discussion ensued about the various traditions people have surrounding burial and cremation.

So… I’d really like to know… Where is your family at on this topic? How old are your kid(s), what have you told them and how have they reacted?


20 Responses to “Discuss: Talking to Toddlers about Death”

  1. AJ says:

    P.S. This topic coming up on September 11th is purely coincidental.

    September 11th, 2008 at 2:09 am

  2. Mary says:

    We have yet to face this issue with our son, but mostly perhaps he hasn’t been inquisitive enough or mature enough to ask or be curious about why Lola (my mother) isn’t around, amongst other family members. However, my grandmother, I fear, may pass in the near future, so the topic will come up. He may ask Mommy, why am I crying or why I am sad. At which point, I can explain it in simplest terms (he’s not quite three yet). Regardless, thank you for your posting how you handle this subject. It gives me an idea of what I possibly could do with my own children.

    September 11th, 2008 at 3:33 am

  3. thordora says:

    Heh. Everyone I know thinks I’m morbid for approaching death as most people do birth-a necessary part of life. I’ve always had the discussions with mine, with the approach changed for the age sometimes. My mother died when I was young, and I had to talk about why their Poppi had no wife.

    Both mine love exploring the local graveyards, which gives me a chance to talk about history, medicine, explain the soldier’s grave, and try and explain my personal views on death. Mine seem to be slowly understanding the cyclical nature of life, which is how I want it to be.

    I’ve also never EVER used the “you go to sleep” phrase or anything about heaven (since I don’t believe in it) I feel those concepts confuse things for children.

    I approach it as normal and natural, as my mother did before she died.

    September 11th, 2008 at 5:12 am

  4. Sandy W. says:

    We didn’t discuss it with our 4 yr old son until we could no longer avoid it. He had a gold fish that expired. He didn’t understand that his fish was dead and floating for a reason. He kept trying to feed that dead fish so we knew we had to say something. We told him that his fish died and so his body doesn’t play, or eat, or swim, or breathe anymore. We had a ceremony in the back yard and buried the fish in an altoid container. We, however, did tell him about God and heaven since that is what we believe in. He, very quickly, made a connection between his fish dying and people and wanted to know if he would some day die and if Mommy and Daddy would too. We told him the truth, that everyone dies eventually. He didn’t seem scared. Maybe that was because of our faith in God or maybe it was just a busy 4 yr old’s reaction. Anyway, sometimes the unplanned lessons are the best learned ones.

    September 11th, 2008 at 1:06 pm

  5. Ella says:

    I lost my one-year-old this past winter, so, although I have no other children to explain it to, I end up being present for a lot of my friends’ explanations. I had a kid attached to me every time they saw me for a year, now I don’t, and they want to know where she is.

    I try to emphasize the fact that she isn’t sick anymore and so it’s good for her. She doesn’t miss me and is never sad or hurt, but sometimes I’m sad because I don’t get to see her anymore. It’s hard to explain, especially with the added idea that it isn’t just something that happens to old people.

    A lot of my friends go the “Baby M went to Heaven and now she’s an angel” route.

    And a few of them had dead pets and such and knew already. For the most part, we just established that M isn’t going to be back and then commenced playing.

    September 11th, 2008 at 4:42 pm

  6. AJ says:

    That news is as bad as it comes Ella. You’re probably sick of “at least” statements, but at least you still have your friends. I expect some friends in that type of situation don’t know what to say or how to act or feel guilty for enjoying their healthy child in your presence, and so they become distant. We lost a friend when my wife had postpartum depression with our first child.

    In addition to what you cherish and retain from having a year with your daughter, going forward you also know who your real friends are.

    September 11th, 2008 at 6:22 pm

  7. Charity says:

    Ella, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.

    I’m not a mom, but hope you don’t mind me sharing.

    I don’t even remember when my parents told me about death/heaven…I was a very inquisitive child!

    I was very close to my Great Grandmother (dad’s mother’s mother). I remember always running up to her and helping her walk into the house (I was 3 or 4 at the time).

    When I was 4 or 5, I remember waking up and going into the dining room and my dad was sitting at the table crying. Of course, I wanted to know why. Great Grandmother had died.

    It’s funny that so many years later I still vividly recall my confusion. Why was dad so upset? Shouldn’t we be happy for Great Grandma because she’s now with God and Jesus?

    September 11th, 2008 at 8:22 pm

  8. Mary says:

    Charity, you brought up something pretty interesting…our own experiences with death, especially as a child. I didn’t really know my Great Grandmother, but when she passed away, I remember it was the first time I saw my father cry. The first time I was truly impacted by the death of someone close was my grandma. I didn’t really know her well (she lived in a different country), but my mother’s sorrow seem far greater (on the outside) than that of my father’s sorrow when his grandmother passed away. Seeing my mother take her mother’s death so hard hit me harder. I think it was the bond of mother and child that was so much stronger. Two years ago my mother passed away. It was about the worst thing to ever happen to me and I feel that my sorrow had been the same as my mother’s when her mother passed. However, I am thankful of my time with her. My sister, born just a few weeks prior to my mother passing, won’t have the same advantages that I had growing up (my sister is 23 years younger than I). Because my step dad moved away, I don’t have much contact with my little sister. So, I’m not sure how he has, or will, explain why her mother is not around. He is religious, so I have a feeling he will tell her that Mommy is in heaven watching over her, otherwise, I don’t know. My mother’s death had a deep impact on me – since I saw the turn of events that led to it. My sister’s sorrow for our mother’s death will be different – especially as she gets older and sees other children enjoying the company of their mothers.
    I believe that when it comes to children and the discussion of death, it mostly depends on the situation. In some cases, explaining death without losing someone may seem less painful and easier. Also, I think it may be a better idea to introduce death when it isn’t quite as personal for the child. This way, when it does happen to affect them personally, they will have a better u nderstand of what has happened.

    September 11th, 2008 at 8:54 pm

  9. Tara Benwell says:

    This topic is very real for me right now. Both of my grandparents just died in the last three months and my four year old is having some trouble. My own mother is also gone, and now she is worried that I will die and won’t take her with me. She also worries that she won’t be able to take her blankie or her toys and that there won’t be toilets in heaven. I’ve heard a lot about what NOT to say, but not much on what to say. My sister-in-law (who lost her mom when she was 3) said the best thing to do is talk about it and encourage her to talk. This has helped tremendously.
    Ella, I’m so sorry. Thank you for sharing with us.

    September 11th, 2008 at 10:14 pm

  10. Nichelle says:

    It is interesting that this should come up on 9/11, coincidence aside. My child is only 13 months so explaining death is not issue that we’ve had to deal with yet. However, I spent a week at a summer camp for kids who lost a parent on 9/11. In speaking of the death of their loved one, these kids do not sugarcoat. They simply say their mom or dad died that day. Even as the temporary caretaker in their lives, it was tempting to want to protect them in a way from whatever feelings or emotions talking about the death could arouse by shying away from the subject or pretending it wasn’t there. The beauty of the camp was that all of the kids were in the same boat so there was no use pretending, they could just be and feel and play and know they had company. So based on that experience, I think being frank with your kids (as you have been in this and other subjects), open about your own feelings, and taking comfort that you are facing loss as a family is important.

    September 11th, 2008 at 11:42 pm

  11. Kathleen says:

    Thank you to everyone who is posting. Your comments will be very helpful in our future attempts to help our 3.5 year old (as well as his brother down the line) grasp and deal with this topic.

    September 12th, 2008 at 6:19 am

  12. Marianne O says:

    We’re going through an “I don’t want to die today” phase with my 3.5 year old son.

    He attended his great-grandmother’s funeral in the summer, and took part in the burial by dropping a photo on top of the casket. At the time we explained that “Granny” didn’t need her body any more, so we put it in the ground so that it could turn into dirt that would feed the grass and flowers. We explained the circle of life as: bodies become dirt, dirt feeds the plants, plants feed the animals, and eventually animals die and become dirt again.

    We’ve asked my son what kind of animal he would like his body to become a part of. Sometimes he likes the idea, and sometimes is against it. Mostly though he just wants reassurance that it’s not going to happen today.

    Like you, AJ, we talk about community safety and the fact that he will probably (emphasis on the probably) live a long time… but it’s hard to know exactly how to handle the question.

    September 12th, 2008 at 6:27 am

  13. Jody says:

    Henry, our 3.5 year-old son, has been around death for much of his life.

    My father-in-law is a mortician in a small town. He travels to our town to pick up grave markers and caskets.

    Lately, whenever we are on a car trip, Henry points out a house and says, “People in that house are getting ready to die, and Grampa Jim will come take care of their bodies and bury them.”

    Then, we usually go into a discussion about the eco-system.

    September 12th, 2008 at 4:20 pm

  14. Tara Benwell says:

    Wow, just reading through these comments again makes me realize that our little ones really rely on their parents’ beliefs. They are too young to understand that they have the freedom to believe what they want about death, heaven, the after life…etc. What else is a parent to do but pass on their own beliefs?

    September 12th, 2008 at 9:13 pm

  15. Darby says:

    We just attended a funeral yesterday with our 3 year old, and all of our family and friends commented on how poised she was about the concept of death.

    When our daughter was 2 1/2, one of our dogs suddenly and unexpectedly died. A couple of months later, her great-grandfather passed. And then this past week, her other great-grandfather passed. We have used these experiences to teach her about death because she has been very interested and wants to know. Toddlers have good questions, and they want good answers.

    Some may not approve of our method, but our explanation and discussions about death have been inspired by the Native American folklore portrayed in the animated movie called “Brother Bear.”

    We discuss how the departed go to be with the spirits up in the sky, and that they turn into spirits to watch over us. At the gravesite yesterday, I explained to her that her great-grandfather was in the coffin and that he was going to have a long rest in the cemetery. I told her we wouldn’t see him anymore. That he was a spirit and could see us, but we couldn’t see him. That led her to inquire about the other people resting in the cemetery and whether they were spirits too.

    We don’t mention heaven or God, but that is just our personal choice. Whenever she watches Brother Bear, she talks to us about how one of the characters becomes a spirit and she can visually see how that happens as it is portrayed in the movie. It makes sense to her, and to us too. And she can see how it may result in some sadness, but good comes of it too.

    We plan to do teach the same to our son when he is a little older too.

    September 13th, 2008 at 3:33 pm

  16. Paul says:

    I was taken a little by surprise when my just turned 3 year old (now almost 4) began asking about death. She has been asking every so often now for the past 6+ months. She always asks in such a matter of fact way that we just go ahead and answer as straightforward as possible. Talking about a president or inventor (“is he dead, why is he dead?” “because he lived a long long time ago). Talking about dinosaurs. Talking about seat belts I always said to buckle up so you’ll be safe so one time she added “or else I’ll die” (answer I gave was you could get very hurt but probably not die). On and on but not very often and always very matter of fact. She seems to be dealing well with the concept and our answers, so we are just letting her lead with this topic! Don’t know for sure where it will go.

    September 14th, 2008 at 5:28 pm

  17. Brian says:

    Sometimes there’s no way to get out gracefully.

    My daughter (3 at the time): “Does everybody have to die?”

    Me: “Yes.”

    Daughter: “Even me?”

    Me (flop-sweating): “Not for a long long long LONG time…”

    Daughter: “And you?”

    Me: “Well, yes – and I want it to be a long time from now, too, so I try very hard to eat food that’s good for me.”

    Daughter: “Like ice cream?”

    Me: “Oh, don’t I wish. Ice cream is okay once in a while, though.”

    Daughter: “When can I have ice cream again?”

    Me: “Tomorrow night.”

    Daughter: “WAAAAAAH…”

    Me (to myself): (What the hell? We got past her death and mine but she’s wigging out over the ice cream. Now my wife’s PO’d too because our son heard the crying and woke up. Can I go hide in a corner now? With a beer?)

    September 15th, 2008 at 7:54 am

  18. Tim says:

    My 3.5 year-old son has also been bringing up death with greater frequency. We have not had to face the issue head on yet, but we have discussed the deaths of relatives that he’s only seen in photographs.

    I was in high school when my grandmother passed on and one day, I was charged with watching my younger cousins as our parents were making funeral arrangements. I bought them each a helium balloon on which to write a message for our grandmother before releasing them to the sky. Not sure if it helped give them closure, but it sure helped me feel better.

    September 18th, 2008 at 8:18 am

  19. Eliz says:

    This is an interesting topic as just yesterday my daughter and I came across a dead bird in the street. She wanted to know what happened so I told her the bird had died. Most likely it had been hit by a car. She wanted to know if it was going to go back its family (why oh why doesn’t my husband ever get to field these questions). So I explained that no it wouldn’t be going back to it’s family because it had died. It wasn’t alive any longer and it’s spirit went up to heaven and was looking down on us and keeping us safe. (I remember as a child being truly comforted that when my dog died it was in heaven watching over me). She seemed to really like that idea of being watched over. We went through the cycle of life and that everything has a beginning and an ending. She seemed to take it all in stride as is her nature but she will have more questions in a couple of week after she has had time to mull it over.

    It is interesting the impact your experience with death as a child effects your parenting. When I was around 4 years old I was visiting my grandparents on their farm. I remember a lot of commotion and sadness as someone died while I was visiting. A good old fashion wake was held at my grandparents. I can still vividly recall to this day playing with Barbie and looking over Barbie’s head to keep an eye on the dead guy laid out on the dining room table (for 2 days he was laid out). It had been explained to me that he had gone to sleep and was never going to wake up again. For a long time when ever someone fell asleep at home I would shake them and ask them if they were dead. I also know I never napped after that trip either.

    September 18th, 2008 at 8:18 pm

  20. Sharon Walsh says:

    Hi I loved reading all the stories some were very sad others were funny. Here is my story:
    My son was 4 and his little lizard died it was a Gecko. I went and found another one that looked exactly the same as I didn’t want to break his little heart. Yet this one died too! It was from the same person…I had to do the Mommy thing and explain the big D word…
    We went and buried him in the backyard with a little cross and I told him that Jesus would come and take him. I thought I had explained it well but the next morning I see my son banging on the patio door holding his dead Gecko up and crying….Jesus didn’t come to get him MOM . OK now I think I have failed in the expaining of Death… Help!!!! So I said well I guess Jesus must have been very busy yesterday and had lots of pick ups.. I told him we should put him back and give Jesus some more time to come and get him…. (Now I couldn’t tell him I had lied about it all) So I made sure to move him and sure enough my son came the next day and said yup…Mom Jesus came and got him …so now my Friend is gone with Jeasus… and that was it…he just kept adding to his cemenentary and I kept moving them for a few years…till the dog started to find them ….and he got older….
    Now I tell him that When his Master of Kung fu died he is up teaching the Angels Kung fu, His Uncle is teaching the Angels how to play Hockey ,, and his other Uncle who just passed away 2 weeks ago is teaching the angels how to ski doo.. I have to some how tell my brothers 4 year old boy about his fathers death to Liver cancer… HIs Mom has not said a word… We just got some books about it… Yet if anyone has any ideas how to tell him and still keep his innocence in his young little life… He has watched his father for 3 years fighting Cancer..
    I am at a lose as to what to do I am not the Mom. I cannot go against her wishes to not tell her son.. Thanking you in advance everyone for reading my email…

    February 22nd, 2010 at 6:13 pm

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