Challenging Conversations with Kids: On Death

During bedtime two weeks ago, T asked me, “Papa, are you old?”

“I’m older than you. Why do you ask?” I replied.

“When you get old, will you die?” He asked.

I was caught so off guard. My gut reaction was, “Are you kidding me? It’s past your bedtime. I am so tired. And I just want to go to bed.”

But of course, I did not say that. I paused and collected my thoughts.

“Why do you ask?” I asked. I was concerned. It seemed like such a dark and heavy topic for our usual happy-go-lucky boy.

I tried to remember if he had watched something on TV and I wondered if he may have heard a story from school that upset him.

“Are you gonna die when you get old?” He asked again.

I am a straightforward person – sometimes too direct – and I believe that it’s important to be honest with T and to normalize difficult subject topics, like death.

But I will say that I struggled with this answer. “We’re all going to die one day. But life has a beginning, middle and an end.”

“What happens when you die? Will I die one day too?” T asked.

“We all die one day,” I said and repeated that life has a beginning, middle and an end.

“Will I die soon?” He asked.

“I hope not!” I said. “You’re a young boy. You have a long life ahead of you.”

“I don’t want Papa and Daddy to die. Or I’m going to be alone,” he said and then started to cry.

I was able to reassure him that we are going to be here for a while and that he has nothing to worry about. I can’t guarantee that obviously, but let’s be positive here! But he fell asleep peacefully.

I was bummed after the chat – not only because it was such a dark topic, but I wish I could’ve answered his questions better.

I texted a good friend who has two young girls and she said, “Oh my God, I fucking hate the death talk!” I had quite the laugh and felt better about my own reaction.

So I read up about how to have this difficult conversation with kids, including this insightful article, and I spoke about it with the wonderful child psychologist who has been supporting our family the last two years.

I kept these useful tips in mind for the subsequent times T brought up the topic – thankfully not too often since!

Be truthful and factual – When T asked me again why people die, I reiterated that life has a beginning, middle and an end and that death is a normal part of life. Things in nature like plants and animals also die. The best advice I read was to keep it factual when asked what happens when you die: “Your heart stops.”

Avoid euphemisms – Don’t say things like “You go to sleep forever” because kids will develop a fear of falling asleep. I will admit I laughed when I read that. Also avoid saying things like “They go away to a better place” because the child may think they’ve been abandoned.

Only answer what they ask – Our child psychologist says this is a heavy topic and is a lot for a child to process, so keep the response to what they ask and need to know.

Tell them you plan to be around for a long time – When T asked me again if I’m old and if I will die soon, I told him that I’m older than him but I am still young and that the hubby and I plan to live until we are 100. T knows that is a big number and I could tell that he felt comforted.

Didn’t use religious symbols – I know many families use religious symbolism as a means of comforting children (e.g. Grandpa is now in heaven). Religion is something we are not introducing to T at this point. But it’s certainly something that can help comfort children and I respect that.

Now that I’ve had distance and reflection about this, I feel better. I’m not overly concerned at this point that T has brought up this topic. It seems like an age appropriate thing to ask.

In some strange way, I find it interesting that T is thinking about such deeper topics. It shows me that things are moving and maturing in that little head of his.

Hopefully this topic doesn’t consume too much of his thoughts. And if it does, we’re ready to hear him out and to respond in a way that hopefully reframes it in a positive and reassuring way.

18 thoughts on “Challenging Conversations with Kids: On Death

  1. Thanks for sharing this Ab. I’ve thought about this. How to go about the topic of death when it comes up with my boy (he is only 2). I believe in being honest but I also believe honesty can be delivered compassionately. Thanks for the valuable advice – wishing you well 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ugh, what a heavy question to get, and right before bedtime too. I think you handled it well though and good that you’re trying to be mindful of how to discuss the topic of death in the future. The tips you mentioned seem like common sense after reading, but some of them were not obvious to me beforehand. For example, I had no idea that “you go to sleep forever” could lead to kids developing a fear of falling asleep, but that makes perfect sense.

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    1. Thank you. 🙂 These questions keep us on our toes. While the timing is definitely inconvenient, I gotta say I find it interesting we are having these kind of conversations now. 🙂 Take care and enjoy your weekend. No more shorts weather. 😦

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  3. I think you handled the situation exceptionally well and I can imagine how tough it might be when such questions come up. I hope I remembered how I learned about death as a child. Some situations though come as a cycle are so new and fresh. In some time we asked questions like these and now getting them asked is such a whole new experience.

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    1. Thank you for sharing that! I remember having dreams about loved ones dying as a child and I always remember how that made me feel. It’s interesting to draw from those feelings as an adult and to use them to try to relate to a young child experiencing these anxieties for the first time!

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    1. Thank you LaDonna! While I am genuinely touched that he trusts me with these jars but important questions, I have to say his timing really sucks. 😂 it’s always when I’m done with the day and just wanna go to bed. I can only imagine the many more interesting conversations we will have over the years. All jokes aside, I do look forward to them. To think, just three years ago, we wondered whether this speech-delayed kid was ever gonna talk!

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  4. This is a tough one! I also ran into this subject rather recently. My older kids have never broached the concept of death with me. Bobby once was upset when he was in elementary school when I told him I had hoped to go back to work. That was a big loss to him and he cried and asked me to stay home – I’m not sure how much he has thought about death, but I can imagine the reaction would be bigger. Declan has had dreams of my loss, and he will even still say very emotionally, “I am afraid I am going to never see you again.” That is a tough one to answer as well. These are very good tips for me to use when the conversation pops up (and I have a feeling it will) pop up again!

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    1. Thanks Robyn! It is such an uncomfortable topic but one I (we) have to respond to with sensitivity. I’m definitely learning that kids process a lot and in ways that reflect their maturity level and life experience – things I take for granted now as an adult.

      I wonder how much of it is related to the pandemic and the things T – and other kids like yours – hear and are experiencing and processing.

      That’s sad that Declan expressed those things to you. But at the same, it is also very sweet. Cuz it means just how important you are in his life!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You said, ‘Don’t say things like “You go to sleep forever” because kids will develop a fear of falling asleep.’
    That is so insightful! It seems like such a harmless metaphor, but I can see how it would be disturbing to a child who would take it literally. Fantastic advice 🙂

    And although I am religious, I find it odd that anyone would tell a child that their grandpa has gone to “heaven.” That particular child may or may not be familiar with that concept and might be confusing. Best to stick to the facts, as you suggested.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. 🙂 That wasn’t my advice but from the article so can’t take credit for it. But you’re right, doesn’t it make so much sense? I’m glad I didn’t say that cuz I already get annoyed at how long it takes him to sleep at night! 🤣

      I personally believe in God and know that faith can bring tremendous comfort to people but I also have strong opinions around kids and introducing them to religion at a young age when they haven’t fully formed the ability to think for themselves about stuff like that. But that’s another post and rant. 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

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