How do you explain death to a child?

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rampart | 15:55 Fri 17th Mar 2006 | Parenting
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Our children are aged 3 and 4. My elderly parents live with us, one of whom is in poor health. We also have an aged Corgi who has lived long past her expected lifespan. If a grandparent or pet (or anyone else in our household for that matter) should die, how does one explain that to the children?


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My children have lost two grandparents and various pets over the years. Our approach was to be honest but to keep the message simple and to keep calm. You will possibly be surprised by how matter of fact small children can be; they'll accept something which has upset an adult fairly calmly; after all, lots of things are new and strange to a child.
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Our children are so young - 3 and 4 - I don't know that they even understand the concept. Did you say something like Grandmother went to heaven? How did you convey this? I stupidly pointed to a relative's niche in the columbarium at the cathedral once and told the children that so-and-so was in there. They know that holiday things go into boxes after the holidays, for example, the big nutcraker is in a box. So when I said that about the relative, they simply thought that Aunt Ursula was put into a box until some holiday...which is an interesting thought now that I type that...

Rampart, At their age, they may understand at first, then they will question it and you suddenly realise that they didnt understand in the first place!

I used storybooks when i needed to brooch the subject, a lot of the good books are with characters that they already know. Make sure that when you explain it to them, that you have the time to spend with them, that you're all comfortable and that you dont have any distractions. make sure your children know that its ok to ask questions no matter how upsetting they think it may be - because funnily enough, even at their age, they dont ask questions because they feel it might upset Mummy or Daddy. Let them know that it is ok to be upset and that when somebody passes away, even you will be really sad, but that its ok because its normal to feel sad, lonely, sacred, confused, let down, afraid, frightened etc. use all those words so that they know what words are appropriate for them to use and explain them all.

I would start discussions about your Dog. let them know that you're dog is old and that old people pass away. describe what you mean in simple terms e.g. go to sleep and not wake up, go to heaven, become an angel / a star / snowflake etc. when they get older they will understand about peoples spirt still being with you, but at this age, they dont understand. Maybe have something of your parents/dog that your children can have as a memory such as a scrap book, stories that they have made up, aftershave/perfum/dog collar etc

All i would suggest, through experience, is be as honest as you're children can take and REASSURE them that its natural and that you will be there for them whenever they need to talk.

good luck and god bless at this difficult time for you.

I always think that the whole heaven explaination must be very confusing for kids if the don't understand the concept which I don't believe they can at a young age. It's like saying your grannys gone to Wales, they might just think they've moved. I'm sure it's a more comforting thought but it seems better to try and explain what's actually happened :) x

I suggest using dead leaves as "props" while you explain the difference between living things that, when their time is over, become part of the "wheel of life" - however you choose to explain it. Ideally this should be done before it becomes relevant so the idea can be revisited at the appropriate time.

I feel this idea of granny being "somewhere else" is very confusing for a child & the green & brown leaves are much easier to see the difference between something that is living and something that is dead.

Oh, and "going to sleep and never waking up" can be a highly frightening concept!

I told my children that they had mummy and a daddy to look after them and that there were lots of children up with god in heaven that had no one and that their grandad had gone to help look after the children who didn't have some one. Sharing is a part of life and that I hoped they didn't mind sharing Dada, but if on a clear night they would look outside and look up to the stars and look at a twinkling star it would be thier grandad looking down on them and that he was always with them no matter where they went. They seemed to accept this after time although still being hurt by his departure ........bless them xx
Stories about caterpillars and butterflies are good in these circumstances.
There is a good book for wee folk called Badgers Parting Gifts. I think by Susan Varley. Suggest you look for it on Use it as spring board for talks. Heaven is not always completely appreciated as a concept by littlies - at playgroup you could see a Mothers despair as her little cherub stood up and declared his Grandma had died and gone to Devon!
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Thank you, everyone, for such helpful words. Absolutely the best.


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