How to talk to kids about death (and why you should)
Sarah Troop is the executive director of the Order of the Good Death. Her mission is to normalise death in everyday culture, helping adults and kids accept that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.
(Sarah first spoke to the Longest Shortest Time podcast host, Hillary Frank, about talking to kids about death. We loved the conversation so much that it’s continued here in print.)
Q: How did you become interested in the topic of death?
My family is Mexican-American, so our culture has quite a positive relationship with death. That doesn’t mean we don’t have the same fear of death as others do, but, as poet and author Octavio Paz said about Mexican culture’s relationship with death: he does not hide away but looks at it face to face.
Out in the wider world, death is always hidden and treated as something never to talk about.
As if there’s something wrong with you if you’re interested in it, or question it.
As a kid, nothing intrigued me more than human behaviours and the reasons underlying those behaviours. This intensified my early interest in the culture and beliefs surrounding death.
Death is something we will all encounter. To hide from it or deny its existence can be harmful. I think it’s so important for us to be raising death-positive children. It’s our job to provide the best foundation so they can grow to be happy, capable adults. Death is a huge part of life, so it’s important to help them look at it face to face. It's important to talk to kids about death.
Q: Sometimes it’s difficult to talk to kids about death when we’re still figuring it out for ourselves, especially if we don’t have a solid belief or religion. How do we simplify the topic of death for children?
It is difficult! This is one of the reasons parenting is so very difficult. You feel like you have to be an authority on everything, and if you don’t have it all figured out then you’re messing up somehow.
Developmentally, the vast majority of children will go through a phase (or a series of phases) where, no matter what your response is, they will continue to ask “Why?” over and over again.
What we need to understand is that they aren’t seeking an actual answer or explanation.
What they’re seeking is an interaction with another human being. That basic social exchange is part of our developmental needs. It is our inherent urge to be social. So, instead of answering next time, what I would do is simply pause and reply, “You know … I wonder?” This answer meets that need for interaction, but also creates a space for them to answer their own question, which is a very important life skill.
We’re continuously loading more and more info onto our children, and we often don’t make the time for our children to create, to imagine, to have time to process and explore all that information. We need to remember to make room for the child and invite them to fill it however they wish.
In instances when the questioning of death is very direct and sincere, an option that will serve the child best is an analogy derived from a real experience. This is crucial for young children who don’t yet have the capacity and life experience for abstract thinking.
A great accessible example is the life span of a flower. Pick a flower and observe it over time. If you can turn it into a story, even better!
Stories allow children, and everyone, really, to access ideas and experiences easily.
Like this: What happens to our bodies looks a lot like what happens to a flower. It grows and blooms and becomes a big, beautiful flower. It stays like this for a while, enjoying the sun and the wind and the water and all the little bugs that come and visit. Then, slowly, slowly as the days pass, the flower gets smaller and smaller. Of course it still enjoys the sun and the rain and its bug friends, but you can see the flower begin to bend its head and its petals. Just like our hair begins to change colour and fall out. And, finally, the flower dies.
Another analogy, which is particularly useful for those of you who either believe in an afterlife or are still pondering your beliefs and want to leave it open, is the life cycle of a caterpillar. Now, the caterpillar even prepares himself for death by creating his own shroud in the form of a cocoon.
The transformation into a butterfly—a beautiful, free thing—can address reincarnation, the belief of heaven or that something of us exists after we die. It also addresses the nothingness, which isn’t exactly nothingness. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to look up Aaron Freedman’s piece on why you want a physicist to speak at your funeral, because it is fantastic! It basically states that according to the law of the conservation of energy, none of what makes you you is truly gone—you are just less orderly. This can be comforting no matter what your beliefs.
Q: You were a preschool teacher for a long time. How did you approach the topic of death with the children in your classes?
I approached it the same way I would anything else: with reverence, but also without drama.
Our most beloved and enduring stories always reflect our own lives. They might be in a fantastical context, but the journey of the protagonist, the struggles and the challenges are things we all face in our lives. Dragons or magic rings just make it fun. In these stories, too, is death, because death is an inherent part of life. Most fairytales or classic children’s stories are centred on orphans. Keep telling those stories. The younger children will do what I call “taking it into their play”. They’ll act out or take on the roles and jobs they experience in their environments. Play is the work of the child. It is how they figure out the world, how it works and their place in it.
When they get a little older they can experience and grapple with loss through stories, too. Who hasn’t broken down and sobbed over the loss of a character like Dumbledore or the death of Matthew in Anne of Green Gables?
In my classes we spent a lot of time playing or working outside.
Nature is full of experiences with death because death itself is a natural occurrence. It is inevitable that your child will encounter dead bugs, birds or animals. There was always a commotion surrounding the animal.
Create a space for them to voice whatever they need to—sadness or curiosity. Then, I might suggest that since the bird or whatever animal’s family is not with them, it is our responsibility to be their family now and give them a funeral and bury them. I handle the creature with reverence myself but ask the children for help and input. They readily volunteer to dig a grave, make suggestions for the location; meanwhile, a few children are off picking flowers. Some want to say a few words, others sing a song, and some are quiet.
Later, the children will remember the experience fondly. “Remember when we had a funeral for the little bird Miss Sarah found and we gave him flowers?” “Oh, yes! Let’s bring flowers for him again tomorrow!” Here, the children are gently given an experience with death and are also given room to interact with it as they wish.
Q: We sometimes use sleep as an explanation for death. Is this a good idea?
Sleep analogy, common during the Victorian era, was used during a time when death was very much a part of life. A time when our loved ones died at home surrounded by family, including children.
Funerals were also held in the home until death, not unlike birth, became a business. Nowadays, most people will live decades of their lives without ever encountering the death of a loved one or even a pet. That makes the sleep analogy problematic with no actual context for it. Instead, a child may develop a fear of sleep. Maybe they become scared any time their parents fall asleep, or are afraid to even fall asleep themselves, believing that, like Grandma, they will never wake up again.
Q: At what age do you think it’s appropriate to start talking about the truth?
I think you should always tell the truth. Can you imagine how scary it is for a child who cannot trust their parents? That said, we must learn to not only be honest but also meet the child where they are developmentally. We often forget that children are not little adults. For those of you who have a child over the age of six, you will know that a three-year-old is a very different creature from a six-year-old, and so what we say must also be very different.
Around the age of nine, children typically experience a sort of epiphany as they are leaving the more carefree, dreamy state of childhood and awakening more to the world of the adult. They realise they are separate from their parents and become aware of the world. They learn that there are good and bad things in it that can and will happen to them and those they love. Their early childhood phase is over and they have begun to cross over into the realm of becoming an adult. They begin to challenge and question everyone and everything. This is the time to be more literal and factual about death, dying and the afterlife.
Q: When do you think kids can really grasp the concept that death is forever?
I think many of us have trouble grasping that concept even as adults. Look how tenaciously we hold onto ideas that death isn’t forever—like the concept of ghosts, or having your corpse frozen in an effort to live forever. To cease to exist is a terrifying concept and is the underlying reason why we do just about everything we do, pushing us to create, to achieve, to matter.
Q: Some kids are obsessed with death. How common is it to be obsessed with death, as a child?
Children are obsessed with life and all things in it so, of course, they can become obsessed with death—it’s very common. To the child it’s no different than that time when they were obsessed with dinosaurs. It’s normal and just another thing. We, the adults, attach a greater importance or negative significance on death. That's because we ourselves are so uncomfortable with it.
Q: Children, at some stage, become fearful of their parents dying and ask questions about when we are going to die. How would you approach a question like that?
I would respond with something like, “I don’t think that will happen for a long, long time.” If they seem particularly distressed, I would suggest engaging in an activity that engages them in life, one that also utilises their senses. That could be cooking, going on a walk, doing an art activity, making an obstacle course in the living room—whatever you might enjoy together.
Q: What ideas do you have about talking about loss in a family? Especially when a partner or a grandparent or somebody close dies?
First you need to accept that death, grief and mourning are awful and hard. It’s normal that the loss is going to dredge up many unresolved issues and fears or discomforts because we’re going to be face to face with our own mortality.
Self-care and self-awareness for adults during times of loss is crucial. Grief and mourning have become so stigmatised in Western society. People are told to get over it, which is dangerous and damaging. Why on earth would you want to get over the loss of someone you loved deeply? Loss changes everything.
Be honest with your children about how you’re feeling. It’s good to show emotion and sadness so that they have a healthy example to follow. Hopefully, when navigating loss later in life (all kinds of loss: breakups, job loss, disappointments), they won’t hide from it, or numb the pain with something else, or shut down emotionally. Explain that you are sad or that you miss that person. Tell stories about them. Create meaningful rituals and traditions to keep them a part of your family. In short: be open and talk about it.
Q: Why do you think death is such a taboo topic in Western society?
Every aspect of death and our relationship to it drastically changed in the early twentieth century. End-of-life care became medicalised. Even though most people want to die at home, they refrain from planning or talking about their end-of-life wishes and care. Instead, people overwhelmingly die in hospitals.
We used to care for our loved ones after death as well. Our dead were bathed and dressed by family as a final loving act. We were supported by our communities and engaged in meaningful traditions and rituals, just as we are with every other rite of passage in our lives. But then ‘professional’ morticians came in and made us fear our dead. We were made to believe death was unsafe or unsanitary, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Q: If someone in your family will die from a terminal illness, when is it appropriate to start telling children? Is this an opportunity for them to take part in the death process?
Again, because death is such a complicated issue for us, it’s important to take a little time to sort out your own feelings. Don’t wait too long, though, because your children will know. They pick up on, and actually manifest or imitate, our feelings and moods. If the children in my class acted particularly edgy, or were ‘off’, it was always because I was. No matter how much you smile or act as though things are fine, if they aren’t, it is going to affect a child. This is why it’s so important to be constantly working on our own issues.
That said, what will help your child to not be scared is you.
If you approach a thing with fear and trepidation, that is what your child is going to imitate. Instead, approach it, and especially your interactions with a dying loved one, with love. I know it sounds ridiculously sappy, but let love be your guide.
Children absolutely can and should be part of the process. I hear story after story of people who were shut out of that process as children. One issue that comes up often is people not being able to see the person and then not being able to accept the death. They keep looking for the person and have an even more difficult time grasping the concept of death—because one moment this person was there and then, all of a sudden, they just weren’t.
Dying is a rite of passage like birth.
It is a great honour to usher a human being into the world, and it’s no different in death. Make that time as special and as meaningful as you can. For centuries, people practised something called ‘a good death’. They made sure the dying person had friends and family around. They read to them, played music and sang; they talked with and cared for them. This isn’t always possible but do what you can.
Children can participate in funerals or memorial traditions in many ways, too. Maybe your loved one made biscuits they were known for — get the recipe and make them with your child. People have also been buried with gifts and tokens of love throughout human history, so maybe your little one wants to write a note, draw a picture or give something they think is special to that person. It’s common in my own culture, and in many others, to sit and have a meal at a loved one’s graveside. There are so many options to help you grieve together as a family and honour the life and memory of your loved ones.
Illustration by Sakuya Higuchi for Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 4.