Talking to Kids About Death

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Today, while I was reading quietly in my room, my four year old daughter came in asking about what happened to our dog, Bessie’s body when she died. This past summer, we had to say our forever goodbye to our little pup. Rather than fearing how to talk with our kids death, we settled on being direct and clear about her death. Death can be a tough topic to talk about with, well…anyone. In our family, we make a conscious choice to talk about tough topics directly, clearly and without shame.

Kids Are Capable of Understanding Death

We’ve found that our kids (currently ages two and four) are very capable of understanding death. We, as parents, approach talking about death without fear. No one approach is right for every family, of course, but if you’ve ever wondered how to talk about it with your kids, here’s how we talk about it with ours. 

It was obvious that Bess wasn’t doing well for weeks. The day before we made our appointment with the vet, we sat the kids down and said, “Bessie is very sick. Dad is going to take her to the vet tomorrow morning. They’re going to give her special medicine to help her stop breathing and to help her heart to stop beating. She will die at the vet and she won’t be coming back home. Do you have any questions about this?”

Be Open & Honest

Immediately, there were tears from all members of the family. But framing everything in an open and honest way helped them understand what was happening and what it meant for Bess to die. Our younger kiddo took the information and moved on – that’s who she is as a person. She rolls with the punches. Our older kiddo has a lot of questions about everything so she asked, “So Bessie won’t be coming back?” and “Why does Bess have to die at the vet?” Because we try to be direct when talking about death with our kids, we were honest. “No, Bess won’t be coming back home. Bess has been very sick and we don’t want her to be in pain anymore, so she will die. She won’t have to keep hurting anymore.”

Remembering Those We’ve Lost

In talking about death with our kids, we also try to talk about remembering those we’ve lost. With the death of our dog, it gave us a good opportunity to spark the conversation, but we also talk about relatives who have passed on. We talk about how we can remember them by looking at pictures, telling stories about their lives and keeping lessons they’ve taught us in our hearts to carry with us. Depending on your family’s spiritual tradition, this is obviously a good time to talk about your considerations for afterlife, should you have any thoughts on that.

It’s been at least nine months since we said goodbye to our dog, but today, out of the blue, my kiddo came to me and asked what happened to Bessie’s body. It could have been uncomfortable and I could have easily lied and said, “she went to live on a farm,” or “her body is somewhere special that we can’t go visit.” 

Let Them Ask Questions

Instead, I chose to talk about what happens to bodies after they die. I said, “Bessie’s body wasn’t alive anymore. There were two choices for us. We could have chosen to bury her body in the ground, or we could have chosen to burn her body in a special fire, which is called Cremation. We do that with human bodies too. When we die, in our culture’s tradition, we usually have two options: burial, putting our body in the ground in a special box, or cremation, burning our bodies that aren’t alive anymore. Do you have questions about that?”

She asked, “Why do we have to do something with the bodies?” My answer was direct and simple. “After our bodies die, there is no life left. Our cells start to die and we start to rot or decay, so we need to take care to do something respectful and special with the bodies of those we love.” Her response? “Oh. Ok. Do you want to go paint with me?”

And it was as simple as that. In talking about death with her, I gave clear and honest answers in simple words that she understands. She has a greater understanding, and I didn’t have to lie or dodge the question. It can be difficult to talk about “big” topics with our kiddos, but it doesn’t have to be scary – for us or for them. 

How have you talked about death with your kids? Have you tackled other big topics, even with really little children? I’d love to hear about how other people talk about the many aspects of life and death with their kids too.

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