How to talk about death to young children in a way that doesn’t scare them.
This was a post I meant to write a little over a year ago. One evening last October, Olivia was unusually quiet and picking at her food. She seemed to have something on her mind and I touched her arm gently to catch her attention.
“What’s the matter Olivia? Are you alright?”
She looked at me, her big brown eyes gazing intently into mine.
“Mummy, can four-year-olds die?”
I stopped, my mind taking a little while to process the question she had just asked. Thankfully, I had sought some advice from other bloggers on this very subject earlier in the year when one of my parents’ dogs had died and we were able to discuss the concept of death in a way that didn’t frighten her.
One year on from that evening and this advice has proven useful once more. I wish it hadn’t.
Just over one week ago my grandfather sadly, and rather unexpectedly, passed away.
I wasn’t sure how to tell Olivia. I wasn’t worried about William, he’s 3-years-old and still doesn’t understand what something like this means. But Olivia is older. She understands these things now. And she’s a sensitive soul.
It’s one thing having a general discussion about the concept of death, but totally another to tell her that her great-grandfather had died.
I still have trouble finding the words.
Tips on how to talk about death to young children
From speaking to others, there are at least 5 things to bear in mind:
Don’t worry about your child asking questions. It’s apparently quite normal for children aged between 3 and four to start asking questions about death.
Don’t tell them that people or animals ‘go to sleep and don’t wake up’. We may think it sounds comforting, but it can scare children and may them afraid to go to bed in case they don’t wake up the next morning.
Don’t tell them that people have ‘gone away’ when they have died. Children might think they will come back or may potentially feel abandoned by the person who has died if they were close.
Do be as honest as possible. This was the overwhelming advice I received. Explain gently that everyone will die at some point, normally when they are very old or very ill. But, it’s also important to reassure them that it’s not likely to happen to you any time soon.
Do keep it simple.
Rachel, a British Early Education Consultant who writes the blog Right from the Start, told me that four is the age at which children often begin to question death. She says that in her experience kids are very matter of fact about it and she found this approach worked best when she had to explain the concept to her 2-year-old.
Helen from Actually Mummy told me that she found it useful to be factual and objective when talking about death. When her father died she found it best to tell her daughter GG (then four-years-old) that everyone dies at some point, usually when they’re old and get ill, and also that it wasn’t likely to happen to her or GG’s dad any time soon.
And another book recommendation is Waterbugs and Dragonflies, which aims to explain death to young children using the fable about the waterbug that changed into a dragonfly.
Meanwhile, Helen who runs KiddyCharts, explained to me how she dealt with explaining the death of a grandparent to her child: “My son wanted to know why daddy was sad, so we explained that his daddy wouldn’t be coming back as he had got very old and ill and they couldn’t fix him. He was worried that it might happen to us, but we explained that mummy and daddy were fine and not sick and he accepted that.”
And childcare expert, Fi Star-Stone showed me a post she had written on her Childcare is Fun blog about helping children to understand death. It’s full of useful information and I’d recommend taking a read.
How we handled it and what happened next
My husband and I sat Olivia down to tell her about her great-grandfather.
We told her that he had been very old and very poorly, and that he had died. My husband told her that her great-grandfather was in heaven now.
Olivia listened carefully and quietly, hugging her favourite teddy bear. The teddy bear given to her by her great-grandparents.
She didn’t cry, but she did ask a couple of questions. We tried to answer them as honestly as we could.
Olivia and I followed our chat by making ‘thinking of you’ cards for my Nan and parents. She wanted to send them something to help make them smile and stop being sad. William joined in and it became a fun, creative activity that made me feel a little better too.
Sleep well Grandad. We love you x