What Do You Say When Your Child Asks About Death?

For the last few weeks, my son has been asking lots of questions about death.

Who dies? When do they die? Why do they die?

He’s also really worried that it will happen to him – and soon – and keeps making the most heart-breaking comments:

I will miss my lego when I die; No one will know about us when we’ve died.

There haven’t been any deaths in the family and as far as I can think, there hasn’t been an event which has triggered this curiosity. Two family pets died early last year, but after being upset for a while, he dealt with those in quite a matter of fact way. This is different because he has started to understand that death comes to us all and is worrying about it. He’s a worry-wart anyway, my little man, but this seems to touch everything he does. Will he ever see his favourite teddy again? Will ants eat his fingers when he’s in the ground? It makes me cry just thinking about what must be spinning around in his mind.

Death is a fact of life and I’m not trying to shield him from that; I do think that sugar-coating facts and creating myths about the inevitable can actually cause more worry, but I just genuinely don’t know what to say.

I’ve explained about life-cycles. We’ve been talking a lot about spring recently, so this has been a gentle way to do it, but apart from that, what else can I say?

I don’t believe in God or that there is life after death although I’m not against Jasper believing that if he wants to. Each to their own afterall and I accept that faith can be a wonderful thing to have. In everything, we are teaching him to be open, to respect everyone’s beliefs and encouraging him to make up his own mind.

My dilemma is what to say when he asks if he’s going to die, or if we are. Because of course we are, everyone is. But a 4 year old doesn’t need to be worrying about the whys and wherefores. I’ve tried explaining that hopefully, we won’t die until we’re very, very old and so it isn’t something to be concerned about at the moment. But that doesn’t soothe him. To him, all adults around him are very old, so in his mind, everyone he loves is constantly on the run from the grim reaper.

Should I lie and tell him that no one is going to die to stop him worrying? Is it a phase he’ll grow out of as he begins to understand more about the complexities of life? Does anyone know any books for young children that might help with this?

Advice gratefully received.

30 thoughts on “What Do You Say When Your Child Asks About Death?

  1. I wouldn’t lie to him because he will at some point be exposed to death when a close one passes.

    I’ve heard that children find it easier to accept death if you say they are in heaven. I suppose to them at least they have gone somewhere new.

    I’m dreading this stage!

    • It’s so difficult isn’t it. Last year, when the pets died, I said that death was like a boat just over the horizon. You can’t see it, but you know it’s still there. He seemed to accept that and like you say, it’s the thought of being somewhere new. I just don’t know!

  2. Oh, wow. I don’t have kids, and couldn’t imagine having this convo w/ them! I have a heard enough time accepting it for myself, mainly accepting the fact that there are no answers! I like things to be black and white, and little kids often do to, but this is a topic where no one really knows the right answer.

    Good luck!

  3. I’ve had this with both of my daughter’s. They are both comforted with the knowledge that when you die you go to heaven with the angels. They can see the upset that it causes but they haven’t had personal experience. Personal experience will have the ‘missing’ emotion tied in so coming to terms with a death won’t be quite as straightforward. They’ve asked the question ‘When will i die?’ and like you I’ve responded by telling them ‘when you’re much much older’. I’m not going to frighten them with accident or illness as there’s much less of a chance of this happening. It was just a phase for both my girls and doesn’t come up often anymore so hopefully he’ll move onto other subjects soon! Good luck x

    • Thank you. I think that’s the important thing – being honest without being frightening. Thanks for reassuring me that it’s just a phase!

  4. First I would not lie to him, and if he wants to talk about death don’t show that it is bothering you. Answer his question in a brief but satisfying manner and move onto another topic.Once his curiosity is satisfied he will stop asking.

  5. I speak from personal experience when you try to shield them from the pain of death you cause more issues than if you don’t. I’ll explain (and sorry I know this doesn’t really help answer your question on how to tell you son).

    Last year in March (nearly a year to the day actually was the 17th) my sister sadly passed away (on her 40th birthday) and we had to break the news to my 3 year old daughter (my sons 9 and 13 at the time had experienced death before of an elderly relative so coped far better), at the time we felt she would be best kept away from the funeral and all that it entails as there would be a lot of raw emotion from people who were her usual “rocks” the problem is this created a need in her that she was not able to properly fulfill the need to say goodbye, she has since struggled with separation issues (from us). In December (just gone) my step father passed away very suddenly and this time she attended the funeral and has coped much, much better, she still misses her “pops” but having been able to say goodbye really helped her to understand things.

    I should say we never lied and told her the truth of what had happened on each occasion, we did have to go through a lot of reassurance that mummy and daddy were fine, and that it was sickness that caused my sisters death (although we do not tell her it was Flu, as too often people say they have that, when they have a cold) and that her pops was very old, and she seems to understand.

    It is a hard time when kids start to understand death and ask the questions but I think you have to be open, honest and tell them the truth there is no good comes of lying to kids in the long term. Sometimes we underestimate how much kids actually understand.

    • Thank you so much for being so kind as to share this story with me. It’s really helpful to see how others handle the questions. I really appreciate you taking the time to leave such a detailed and personal comment.

  6. The only thing I think you should do is be honest with him. He’s your kid and you say you dont sugar coat anything to him. So just simply tell him. Tell him he’s not gonna die and neither will yall. but, when the good Lord is ready for you all to go he’ll come get you and take you home which is heaven where he is. That is if you believe in the Lord and him in your heart and that all depends on your faith depends on where you go. I know where I’m going. I’ve had Jesus in my heart since I was 13.

    I just find it weird that your son believes in God and you don’t. If you dont then where’d he learn about God from and dying. Just curious. Not meaning anything by it. Just wondering.

    Sooner or later we’re all going to see God and Jesus again. and when that day comes we will know when it will happen.

    But I do understand it being hard to tell a kid that. Esp if he’s already talking about it and it’s kinda freaking him out. Has he learned about at school or sunday school? Someone’s telling him or is he watching shows about this and if that’s the case then he shouldn’t anymore esp if it’s scaring him and he’s worried.

    • My son doesn’t believe in God at the moment. But if he does in the future, that’s his choice, not mine to make for him. In the same way, it isn’t for you to imply that we are going to hell because we don’t have ‘Jesus in our hearts.’

      Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs – you to yours and I to mine. I wouldn’t dream of questioning your beliefs even though I disagree with them.

      He’s 4 years old – of course he isn’t watching shows about dying.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment, but I find your tone somewhat insulting.

  7. My five children ranged from age 9 to 9 months when we were dealing with my mum’s terminal illness and imminent death so we had many discussions about dying. They had then had to cope with my dad dying suddenly within 10 days of my mum. I told them that no-one knew when people would die and that was why it was so important to live a happy life and to show people how much we loved them. I told them that people lived on in our hearts and our memories so we never really lost them. They seem to have coped well and the fact that they were able to talk about death really helped both them and me during the grieving process.
    So just be honest and matter of fact and don’t worry about your child’s natural curiosity.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this with me. It’s so reassuring that other people agree that the best thing to do is be honest and matter of fact. Thanks again.

  8. This is really hard. When my girls went to visit their great nan, she sadly passed as soon as we walked in. It was difficult when my eldest asked questions but being honest is the best thing x

  9. It is a tricky one. I had my 3 nearly 4 year old at the graveyard the other day, and I was wondering how I was going to cope with the questions, but luckily there weren’t many. I agree, I don’t like to lie, but they don’t need all the details at that age. I have previously told him dead insects are sleeping for a long time and he accepted that. I don’t know…

  10. Wise words from my mum: answer their questions every time but don’t go into unnecessary detail. I add to this: always ask if they have more questions. It’s really normal to be interested in death – think about how much adult energy has gone into it as a topic. My aim is for my children to feel that I am the go to person to talk about tricky stuff… Fingers crossed

    • Thanks Becky. This is my worry – he’s so worried about death even now when he hasn’t experienced it. It’d finding something that’s reassuring isn’t it. Thank you

  11. I had this with my eldest son from when he was about 3 years old. He would even lose sleep over it. We explained that people die when they’re very old or very poorly but then every time he had a cough or cold he would think he was going to die. Eventually we managed to get it through to him but it did take a while x

    • Thanks Karen. My son is the same – he thinks everyone is old so to him, we’re all going to die soon. Glad you got through it in the end

  12. I had always told my children that you die when you’re old. Then Matilda Mae died and I had to admit that people die for other reasons too, even babies. At the remembrance service a couple of weeks ago, the vicar spoke to us about grief and how important it was to talk about it; to share it with children so that they can grow up with an understanding. Death and grief will affect us all in some way and talking about it can help children to understand and to process it all. If it were me, I would talk to your son about his feelings, tell him that you understand why he is scared, or curious, I wouldn’t change the subject or ignore what he’s saying. As for books, I am sure there are some good ones. I’m sorry I don’t know any to recommend
    x x x

    • Thank you so much for sharing this tragic story with us – I have read the posts about it on your blog and it’s just heart-breaking. I really appreciate your advice. I agree with you – I think changing the subject or ignoring it can make it seem even more frightening. Thanks again

  13. Don’t kids know how to ask the most interesting questions? My experience has been that they are interested but don’t need the in depth answers when it is just general questions. I like the idea of being honest. X

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>