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How do you tell children about death?

When a child asks about death, how do you discuss the topic with him/her? Are you concerned that even a compassionate explaination may invoke depression or nightmares?

By Diogenes19726
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My husband died suddenly when my kids were aged 7 4 3 and 1. I told them Dad had gone to heaven and one day we would see him again. At that age they all still believed in Santa claus. The fairy tale was reinforced for the eldest who was at Catholic school where the children and teacher supported my son and they lit a candle and said a prayer. not much different from sitting on santa's lap at the mall and it gave my son some comfort.

I recall a few yrs later my eldest asking if I really did believe in god and heaven and stuff. I told him no and why. He told me he didn't believe it either. He did NOT accuse me of lying to him as a seven yr old.

All grown now, youngest 20, none of my sons believe in god and no longer believe in santa either. Regardless of anyone's opinion here I did the best I could under a devastating situation. I was in no head space to describle the Big Bang.

That's what we all can do. The best of our ability. I know it was some years ago but I'm sorry for your loss.


When she was really little I told her that when someone (people and pets) dies it’s because their body just can’t work anymore, so we hold the memory of them and times we spent together in our hearts.
She’s 9 now and we’ve discussed brain activity, and how neurons and stuff shoot around like electricity in our brain making us alive, once that electricity stops so does our consciousness and we die, much like when u take the electricity away from a bulb the light dims and fades away.
We’ve discussed that some people believe in a heaven and some people think u get born again in a different body, she knows I’m fine with her believing whatever she wants but is quite skeptical.

Every kid is different, u have to explain it in the best way that you think your kid will understand.

BecB Level 4 Nov 26, 2018

Really good approach. Rational but compassionate, and always being ready to answer and take time for their questions. Don't we, as adults, wish for someone like that in our grown up lives ?


It's not a problem unless you really suck at talking to kids.

So many people do, sadly.


I do it as privately and compassionately as possible. I let them know that any emotions they feel or want to express are acceptable. Depression and nightmares happen. Being there to help them work through those issues and get beyond them is important. Life has suffering, they need to learn how to navigate that early on and in a safe, loving environment.

The worst part of parenting is being aware of your child's suffering and not being able to immediately alleviate it. It eases the pain to know that they are skilled, competent, and fully able to cope with such emotions.


Depends on how old and sensitive they are.

I would test the waters by telling them what other people believe. Reincarnation, Heaven, hauntings, etc. and let them pick whichever they feel most comfortable with until they are old enough to have a more serious talk.

Nightmares are a part of life. And if they have them, a few weeks of not dying will soon see them distracted by something less grim.

MLinoge Level 7 Nov 26, 2018

Good question....think with young children the whole heaven thing is handy .Giving them the ..I know ..false belief ..that when you die ..there is something/ somewhere..good that you..or a pet goes too. Attempting to instill the finality of nothingness way too harsh when a child is trying to get their head around loss..and the grieving process .I realise this is a "cop out " but bereavement has to be handled sensitively as ultimately it will impact upon how they deal with loss later life .

Santa is dead ...# doesn't exist. .Come on ..!!!

No presents this year kids ..cos God doesnt exist .Not maybe the answer I should be giving ..but it 's as sanitized as I can put it without destroying a childhood fantasy ...

Jaydee123 Level 5 Nov 26, 2018

My 8yo was really bothered about it for a full year or so, beginning around age 6. I was very honest with him but I also got some books for us to read together ( You are Stardust, etc) and I told him that death is rather poetic, in my opinion. We came from stardust and when we die every atom in our body is recycled back into the universe. We transform into oblivion.


I had a terrible time with my daughter! She would be sitting there playing with her toys, around age 3 or 4, then suddenly stop playing & wail "I don't want to die!" It was so awful--I felt utterly helpless as I don't want to either!

I tried a few approaches--telling her about different ideas that people have about death & what, if anything, happens next. & I tried to make it sound like a normal part of life that is supposed to happen with every living thing, so it must be right. I was kind of going for a sense of completion...trying to be somewhat positive. I would point out a dead animal or insect & say "It was all done being a butterfly" or whatever it was. But I would also say that the squirrel or possum wasn't being careful crossing the road & didn't get to finish living...

The eventual outcome (like after 2 very distressing years) was, I think, that between hearing about the idea of reincarnation as one option & my choice of words regarding bugs being "all done being bugs" was that she decided she would be reincarnated as some sort of animal. One kind of funny story--we were crossing the street & I said we needed to be careful not to be run over, & she rather too enthusiastically said "And then I can be a lion!!" Rather taken aback, I said that we were vegetarian & she'd have to eat dead animals if she were a lion. Her reply: "But I would have a lion mouth!"

I guess I bumbled my way through--she's not locked away in a mental institution some where. She seems happy, capable & self confident, & she hiked the Appalachian Trail by herself in one season when she was 20.

Carin Level 8 Nov 27, 2018

It's not really that difficult - they get the concept of death - most kids have killed a bug or two in their lifetime. It's how to deal with loss following the death of a loved one that they'll likely need help with.

SLBushway Level 6 Nov 27, 2018

My five year old grandson "found out" about death this year when the family dog had to be euthanized. He was ancient and my son and daughter-in-law explained that the dog was just very old. It did not give him nightmares, but I said one day that I was old and he said, "I don't want you to die; it would make me very, very sad to not see you." I told him that I was not truly old and I was likely to live until he was a man. Explaining that people die is not ever easy, but it is necessary.

And there was no talk of heaven as my son is an atheist and refuses to let the relatives indoctrinate the boy.


My son has SPD so I was curious when this day came of the questions about death and dying how would I respond. I ended up doing what my mom did with me. I asked him what he thought. It gave him the space to unpack what his then 7 year old mind was exploring. He then asked what I thought. I was careful not to push what I thought onto him by simply taking ownership and saying it’s okay to have his own thoughts and opinions. He actually takes the death of animals harder than people so far. Except as a now teen he talked about suicidal thoughts. Each time we come to this deep and vulnerable place I notice he needs to unload, purge, and unpack. And I go through this process with him as often as I can. He’s never had nightmares or depression from these discussions but it’s often helped his anxiety to feel free to unleash his thoughts in a safe place. Also I’ve never hidden death from him. He’s been to human/animal funerals/vets. And since he rescues animals daily he’s been exposed to the cycle of life. And we often talk about the pets we’ve lost and miss. We lost two cats last year.

angbet41 Level 4 Nov 27, 2018

The Death of a beloved pet is probably the best teaching tool, most Dogs have about 12 years(some exceptions,but usually small Dogs,live longer),Cats can vary,breed, and environment play a factor in their lifespan.

Mike1947 Level 7 Nov 26, 2018

That's honestly why I got The family a dog. So they could have that bonded experience of loss before adulthood. I know it sounds morbid but I also recognize by having children when I was almost 40 means thry are more likely to experience my death as young adults. Which is a really tough thing to do.

2 their speed…

Varn Level 8 Nov 26, 2018

My family leads a science-based life, we belief in what we can see, prove, recreate, etc. And sometimes the best examples are harsh or sad. I am a dog breeder, so my children grew up seeing life, reproduction, and death. It is what it is.

When children are young enough to grasp some concepts, explanations don't need to be lengthy, just factual and offered in a kind tone. Occasionally <ahem> Mother Nature is a bitch, and sometimes a bitch (female dog) gives birth to puppies that do not survive. If, after attempts to resuscitate a puppy fail, then it is an opportune time to explain that not all living things live long lives, and sometimes they stop living, hence death. Not all puppies (or people or whatever) live, and that gives us another opportunity - and that is to more fully appreciate the living!

Death IS part of life, and seeing it first hand helps acceptance. Another part of life was always that the children insisted that we bury the dead puppy (or the ashes of elderly pets who had died), and planting something over the 'grave'. No ceremony, maybe some tears for the loss of a potential pet, and then on to the next thing. In addition to seeing puppies being born (which is a smelly and messy situation) my children have also seen dogs being bred, and that is just another factual aspect of life and related subjects! My now-adult children have a healthy respect and understanding of life.

Rustee Level 7 Feb 27, 2019

Now THAT is a hot potato.

Truth be told, I wouldn't even know where to begin. It's easy from an adult context. But dealing with a child is a whole new ballgame.

Seems like a good place for resources for secular parents.

Mb_Man Level 6 Feb 24, 2019

We'd frequently discuss when my 2 kids were small, and they are 5 apart so the elder one could also explain to the younger, when we saw a dead bird small animal, friends' pets died, a distant relative etc. We were lucky it was not too immediate. Since like most atheists we don't feel angst about the idea of death, fear hell etc. the children were never distressed either. My parents-in-law were very relieved that our children were down-to-earth and practical about 99% of "the questions".

Allamanda Level 7 Feb 13, 2019

My 7 year old grandson has already been indoctrinated with religion so he believes he’s going to heaven but is very concerned that I’m going to hell because when he asked me if I believed in god I told him I don’t believe in something that doesn’t exist. Hopefully someday he’ll figure it out.

Trajan61 Level 8 Feb 6, 2019

Get a hamster, mouse, or a rat. Rats are really affectionate and super smart.They make great pets, but you can't just put them in a cage by themselves all day. It would drive them nuts. They are social. But they only live 2 years, so you get the big bonding and friendship, but then they are gone. So kids learn about death, and how it's in store for us.


My mom eventually when questioned finally came up with this: Where were you before you were born? Do you know or remember? That's probably where you'll end up.


Honestly and to the best of your ability.
My children who are 5,5, & 4 have a basic understanding of what death of others means. They haven't asked the what happens after death question. When thry do I will tell them the truth. We don't honestly know. Many faiths have different ideas but science would say nothing.


I don't recall if I did specifically... too long ago, my kids are grown. I can imagine spouting out some platitude like "poor thing" if we saw a dead squirrel in the street or something. but I don't recall them specifically asking nor myself specifically answering.


Flat out to tha point

Blakadow Level 4 Nov 28, 2018

Life evokes nightmares. So does death. All i can say is " yes, as long as there have been humans, we have always wondered what happens after we die, and many have come up with ideas of what they think might happen, and everyone has to find out for themselves what they believe. But i think, theres no other way it could be, our bodies can't work forever, and we have to do all we can while we are alive, to do our best each day and try to reach our potential. And if there is any reason why we must die, maybe its so that we can appreciate our lives more, because we know it doesnt last forever."

When my wife passed away in the living room of our house,the people who knew her,said she left a Ghost,I've never seen it myself,but the renters of the house,say their two small Dogs will stare at the hallways she used to travel and avoid certain rooms,real or imagined? I dunno.....


I think it would be hard to explain to a child that once we die, we are gone forever. Kind of like before we were born. We have no memory of it, and once we die, we cease to exist. It's pretty final.


I explained death from the time they could talk. Like when a pet or family member or friend dies. We had funerals for pets. Whether you talk about it or not they will hear about it. I tell them they can believe in heaven if they like but it doesn't exist, or at least I don't believe it. My mom thought it was harsh. She's Catholic, but I said heaven is a fantasy and no good for people to dream about. It just lets people think that there is in some way another life after death. A perfect life in the clouds or reincarnation is not ideal fantasies for avoiding suicide. Especially after I got diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. My son has been in counselling recently, because even though I survived, it probably affected him. Hell just makes everyone worry too. That can cause children unnecessary anxiety. I tell them live life and make the most of it, because when it ends, you feel nothing and think nothing. For old and sick people, I remind my kids that their pain has ended. Your soul, heart and brain dies with the body. You remember your loved ones and their memory lives in your heart. Some people die too young, a kid at my son's school had cancer. Some people are lucky and are born with good health and if they take care they can live a long time. Life is hard, but the struggles help you appeciate the good times. That's 15 year's worth of talking a death with my babies. Thank goodness. It works for me. Good luck to you.

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