Talking to Preschoolers About Death
Hi Amy, I have been addicted to your blog and the Advice Smackdown since my oldest child was born and I was held hostage (loving every minute of it) breastfeeding for hours on end. She’s now 3 1/2 and I’m struggling with a parenting situation (who isn’t, right?)
I have heard that kids can’t really understand death until they are about 5 years old, but my daughter has no idea that people can die. She has a vague understanding that bugs can be killed, but that’s about as far as that idea goes in her head. The other day we went to an exhibit about Christopher Columbus and when she asked why he wasn’t there, I said he wasn’t alive any more. She said, “mom, people can’t die!”
Now, my child is fiercely independent, but she is also terrified of many things – bug bites, putting her face in the water after 1,659 swimming lessons, wearing anything that isn’t pink, etc. I’m afraid that telling her that people die will start a chain reaction of terror about her own death and the demise of everyone that she loves. Since I deflected that statement about people not dying, I have seen references to death everywhere – in a Muppets movie, on the news, overheard in conversations around us, etc. I obviously won’t be able to avoid it much longer, nor do I want to. I want to be honest and open with my kids, but I’m not sure how to approach this situation since she probably won’t understand the whole concept anyway. Is this best handled as a sit-down serious discussion, or should I just broach the topic casually and lightly and answer questions as they come?
Thanks so much for your advice!
You are absolutely correct that children your daughter’s age can’t process death, at least the full-scale concept of it. They can process little bits here and there (i.e. bugs can die), but it’s a lonnnnnng process to full understanding. (Honestly, how many of us adults still struggle with facing our own mortality and the unanswered questions of the afterlife and love and loss and gahhhhhh existential crisis time!)
Even once your daughter understands that death is something that can happen to people, her brain will likely continue to find other coping mechanisms: Death happens to “other” people, not people she knows or loves, not children and certainly not herself. And most children struggle with the permanence of death (people leave but everybody comes back) and will usually believe that even a dead person is “somewhere” and still in their physical form, doing all the same things living people do. They’re just up in the sky or on the moon, so the chance of them returning someday seems plausible.
(My son once asked why astronauts can’t just bring dead people back on their spaceships.)
And then, after all of that, she will still not understand that not only is death something that CAN happen, death is something that WILL happen. It is the inevitable end to all our lives, including hers.
But that realization is a long way off, and so far your daughter’s reactions (and yours) are perfectly normal and healthy. It’s okay to deflect a little bit for now: You will do her no favors by attempting to explain and burden her with information her brain is simply not yet capable of understanding. It’d be like saying, “Oh you love puzzles? Cool. I bought you this 1,000 piece puzzle. It’s a photo of the color blue. Get to work!”
So no sit-down serious discussion is needed. Or advisable, honestly! Death is inevitable, as is her (normal) growing awareness of it. You don’t want to deflect if she comes to you with specific questions — just take note to not over-answer because of your (normal) discomfort with such a heavy topic.
“Mommy, can people die?”
(Again, she will likely default to the belief that the “people” you’re talking about are not people she knows, or people like her.)
It’s okay to deflect a little bit for now: You will do her no favors by attempting to explain and burden her with information her brain is simply not yet capable of understanding.
The usual follow-up questions include what happens when you die, does dying hurt, will you die someday, etc. And it is good to be prepared for them, and to figure out how to answer them, depending on your family’s personal beliefs…while also allowing for the fact that she may come up with her own beliefs and answers.
(My children believe in heaven as an actual physical place in the clouds where old people turn young, and when they die they will look exactly like themselves and eat/drink/play with Legos like they do now. There just isn’t any school or sickness or “bad things.” They did not get this belief from me, someone who believes your existence ends completely with your death. But considering it took me close to 20 years to reach that belief and probably another 10 before I was willing to say it out loud, I’m okay with letting my children follow their own path to existential understanding, wherever it leads for them.)
It’s understandable for very young children to be scared of death, but it TYPICALLY remains such an abstract concept for them that the level of fear actually pales in comparison to the “real” things they fear. A bee sting hurts. Putting my face in the water feels weird/stings my eyes/I can’t see and I don’t like it, etc. Wearing pink makes me happy so any other color makes me sad. Those are easy-to-process feelings and emotions that she’s had first-hand experience with. Death is just…a whole other thing that hasn’t happened to her yet. And even after she does experience death (a pet, a grandparent or relative), it can still be years for a young child to grasp that it’s truly permanent or inevitable.
(And here’s my standard book recommendation for anyone with an overly-fearful or anxious child: Freeing Your Child From Anxiety.)
(And here’s my shameless plus: Your daughter might really dig a copy of Everybody Gets Scared, personalized to her specific list of fears!)
So the reality is that “talking to preschoolers about death” is not a singular sort of discussion, but a very long process of both honesty and reassurance (yes, death happens, but it’s not happening right now or anytime soon, I’m here and I love you and I always will). And then stepping back and allowing them to process it all as well, in their own way. It’s okay for her to be “wrong” about certain aspects of death, and wait for her to ask specific questions before you “correct” her. Her brain is likely protecting her just fine right now from the subtle reminders coming from the news and Muppets, but just read her cues and be ready for more questions.
In time, like when she’s older than five, if you really feel overwhelmed by the discussions or a death happens in her life firsthand, know that there are a TON of wonderful books for children that explain death in terms that nail the “honest but reassuring” tone. When my father died my oldest was five and we purchased When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death and Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. (The Dino book is especially great because you can choose to read as much or as little detail on each page, so you can keep it very simple at first, then tell them “more” as they get older.) Those books were immensely helpful then, and again when we lost both of our pets earlier this year in the span of a single week, when my younger boys were 7 and 5.
Photo source: Depositphotos/Reanas
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Published August 24, 2016. Last updated April 2, 2018.