The concept of dying and death can be very confusing for children. Younger ones might see their cartoon characters get blown up on TV, then shake themselves off and keep going. Children might also not know what to do with their big feelings or how to handle other’s reactions during this time. Parents can help their children process this natural phenomenon in life so although sadness might be felt, the child isn’t also overly anxious or scared.
How a parent responds to his or her child’s experience of death will depend on that child’s age and developmental stage. These suggestions are more for younger children, and I will post some resources for children of all ages at the bottom of this piece.
I’d say the goals of explaining death to children are:
1) To avoid negative associations
2) To clear up confusion
3) To give space and permission for big feelings
4) To reassure the child s(he) is safe
Here are some things to consider when speaking to children about death:
As my mother had passed away before my children were born, I expected they would eventually ask where she is. Also, when children start going to daycare or school, they will encounter other children who have experienced death. My five year-old came home one day and said, “My friend’s Daddy died.” (I’ll speak more about that lower down).
When my children were two years-old, I started talking about how things that are living will eventually die, using non-threatening examples like insects and plants. One day we found a huge spider who had died—its body was perfectly preserved. I picked the spider up and said, “This spider isn’t alive anymore.” My son looked at me with a confused look on his face.
“Because it’s body was too broken to keep living.” I waited to see if he had questions, which he didn’t, so we spend time looking at the spider, laid it down gently, and continued playing.
The key to introducing it early is to use simplified language and create pauses to see if your child wants to keep talking about it. If your child doesn’t have any questions, leave the topic for another time when you might explain more as the child ages.
A negative association is when the brain pairs two experiences together in an irrational way like, “People die in hospitals—ALL of them! *Hospitals are bad.” Also, “I might die when I fall asleep. *Sleeping is BAD!”
Steer clear of using terms like, “Your friend is resting in peace,” or, “Auntie Susan has gone away,” or, “That’s what happens when people get old,” and, “Grandma went to sleep and didn’t wake up.” Make it clear that death is not about sleep, leaving or being old.
Also, I don’t recommend introducing this topic in a context of religious faith, as the ideas will be too unclear for a young child to understand. For example, if you tell a child that the death of his loved one happened because of “God’s Will,” that child might be fearful, expecting God to come and take him, too. Similarly, if you say, “Your cousin is in heaven now—he’s happy there,” yet the child sees people around him grieving, he might wonder if my cousin is so happy, why are you all sad about that?!
The last thing is to avoid is a negative association between dying and doctors or hospitals. Children can become quite fearful of hospitals if they believe it is where dying happens (they will assume this is the case EVERY time). You can say something like this, “Uncle Fred is in the hospital so the doctors can do their best to help him.”
To reduce confusion and fear, use factual words to explain what death is. Focus on the part of the body “that stopped working.”
Here are some examples:
“Our dog Shirley has died because her stomach was too sick to keep working. She wasn’t able to eat anymore.”
“Grandma has died. She had an illness called ‘cancer’ that caused her lungs to stop working. She wasn’t able to breathe anymore.”
“Daddy’s body was too broken to keep working. His heart stopped beating.”
“Your brother’s motorcycle was hit by a car. The crash (don’t use the word “accident”—stay to the facts) caused his body to be too broken to work right.”
After your initial statement, pause and wait for questions. If you hear, “what’s an illness” or “what is cancer” answer those calmly and clearly. Perhaps something like this, “Cancer/illness sometimes happens when parts of our body stop working right—we might know what causes this but sometimes we don’t.” To alleviate fear, you might say something like, “We will do our best to prevent cancer/ illnesses by eating well, drinking water, exercising, getting outside time, sleeping enough and not smoking.”
It can be quite shocking when you are carrying on with your day and suddenly a child asks, “Mommy, are you going to die?” I have also heard this in the middle of nowhere, “Your mommy died, right?”
Regardless of how badly we want to assure our children that nothing challenging will ever happen, being truthful, and not scary is the approach that will be most helpful for our children. As I mentioned above, keep answering your child’s questions with neutral words. Using the examples above, I recommend saying something like:
“Yes, I am going to die someday. Everything that is alive will eventually die. But I expect to be living a really long time, and I’ll do my best to make choices that help me live longer.”
For the other example, I have said, “Yes she did. I miss my mommy and feel sad sometimes. Were you thinking about her?” If time permits, I might show my curious child a picture of my mother.
In the case of my child’s statement, “My friend’s Daddy died,” I started with questions:
“Did your teacher or your friend tell you?”
He said, “My friend.”
I then asked, “What did he tell you?”
He replied with, “He told me that his Dad’s brain was sick and he died.”
So I asked, “Do you have any questions?” He shook his head “no” so we continued driving along, listening to the radio.
When explaining or asking your children about death and dying, include your feelings and check in about theirs. Perhaps say something like this, “I feel very sad that Auntie’s dog has died. I loved her and miss her. Do you feel sad, too?” Acknowledge the feeling first and then ask what can be done to feel better afterward:
“Sometimes when I am missing someone, I look through pictures of that person or go do something that I like to do. Would you like to look at pictures or put the dinosaur puzzle together?” This gets the child thinking that helping himself feel better is a power he has—the child then grows self-regulation skill building.
Children need to feel safe when they hear about sad or scary things happening in their environment. Assure your child that although big feelings might be happening, there are people and strategies around to help things get better. Feelings come and go—they won’t stay forever.
This is obviously a big topic, which is difficult to fully address in one post. For those families who have lost a close family member, I strongly recommend seeking the support of a trusted grief counselor. Trained mental health professionals can work with children to manage and process the big emotions (and sometimes big negative behaviours) that can happen after the loss of someone important to them.
If you would like more information, I suggest these resources:
-Your local funeral home or trusted clergy leader often have good support information for bereaved families.
-Counsellors in your area that specialize in childhood grief. I am a member of two organizations that I know could help you find someone: the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and the American Psychotherapy Association
-Psychologist Laura Markham, PhD has a great list of books to read to children on the topic of death and dying.
-My Facebook page, where I post free parenting resources.
I am a psychotherapist who usually writes about parenting topics, but our family just came back from a road trip to Chicago that was so fabulous, I wanted to share our experience.
We found ourselves with four unplanned days during the Christmas holiday. With two boys, ages seven and five, the thought of waking up each morning and asking, “What are we going to do today?” and spending much of that time refereeing kid-conflict or being a cruise director was less than appealing. So, we decided to take a road trip!
My husband and I thought of all the places we could easily drive to from our house, and discovered that Chicago was only six-hour hours away (six hours of driving, not including stop time). I find that is a great amount of driving time for our (very active) boys at this age—two three hour blocks with a lunch and running wind-sprints in the restaurant parking lot in between.
We tried using Hotwire for the first time: www.hotwire.ca for Canadians, and www.hotwire.com for Americans, and had wonderful success. This is a site where you book a hotel at a discounted rate without knowing exactly which hotel you’ll get. You are able to see a list of amenities (whether there is a pool or not—a must for us), and the general area it is in. We ended up getting the Hyatt Magnificent Mile, which was an excellent location. It is only a couple of blocks in each direction from great kid-activity spots.
Here are some cool Chicago attractions for kids (and their parents):
We had our car there but quickly found that we could go on a 10-minute cab ride for only about five dollars. Having someone else drive that knew exactly where to go was awesome. We left our car in the hotel parkade.
There is a huge Ferris wheel here, restaurants, and an indoor play area. You could spend half a day in and around the Pier area.
This attraction opened recently in December 2014, so some taxi drivers don’t know about it—clarify that you want to go to Maggie Daley Park if you are getting a ride. There is an awesome play structure in this park, too, so you might want to spend time there.
We brought our skates but you can rent some there if you like. It was quite busy when we went, but we still had fun zooming around the path, which had turns and a bit of a hill to go up and down. Skating is free!
This is about a twenty-minute drive from the north end of the mile so we did drive here—parking is $20 in a covered parkade.
Our family’s trick for going to large children’s attractions is to do our research ahead of time, buy tickets online, and be the first ones there. There are activities within the museum that require special bookings (a tour through a real German WWII submarine, the Imax theatre, the Walt Disney exhibit, and more) so I suggest taking time to look through those and book them online before you visit the museum. If you buy your tickets ahead of time, you can by-pass the lineup and go straight in.
Oh, as we went in winter, it was VERY cold when we were there—we geared up with warm weather clothes. To avoid long coat-check lines or carrying our gear around inside all day, we took our outerwear off in the car, I dropped the kids and my husband off right at the door, and left all the jackets, etc in the car. As our motto is “be the first ones there” we didn’t have to park too far away so my jacket-less sprint to the door wasn’t that long.
There is a good food court inside the museum, as well as a yummy ice cream spot. We aim to eat lunch at attraction restaurants by 11:30am at the latest, which so far has turned out very well! We often discover short or no line ups and a table to sit at.
This plaza is a mall located at the north end of the magnificent mile. The whole mile is stacked with shops, but this place has a bunch together in one indoor area. If you are a parent, you’ll want to know that this is where the LEGO store and AMERICAN GIRL stores are! There is also a cool toy-ish store called "Marbles, The Brain Store."
Rather than being spread out over a distance, this mall is vertical in nature: there are seven floors, centered around an escalator. So, seven floors of escalators = fun! (Take the kid's scarves off!)
You will find a Garretts popcorn place (you have to try this!), a massive Macy's and the Harry Caray Sports Museum in here, too. The sports museum is on the seventh floor, and our family had a blast there. The attraction has many interactive sports activities so it is a fun place to learn about sports history and also get the kid’s ya-yas out. We ate at the Harry Caray 7th Inning Stretch restaurant attached to the museum, so our entry fee was included in the price of the meal (which was very good).
Chicago = amazing pizza so we looked for the yummiest restaurant there. The place we discovered was Giordano’s Pizza. We had seen the long line-ups outside of this restaurant so we knew it might be hard to get in.
I’ll credit my husband with having this genius idea: he volunteered to wait in line at 4pm (leaving me with the kids to build LEGO in the hotel—hmmm, who got the better deal on that?!), got inside within thirty minutes, and was seated at a table moments later. It can take up to forty minutes for the deep-dish pizzas to bake so he settled at the table, ordered our meal and a drink for himself (he did get the better deal!) and texted me to then walk over with the boys.
Fifteen minutes later, I sheepishly zigzagged through the long line (which I was told was about a two-hour wait at that point), walked in the restaurant, and straight to our table. The pizza arrived shortly after sitting down!
Boat rides are cool! This tour will take you around the river, showing you the amazing buildings in downtown Chicago. These cruises don't run on colder days so check ahead to see if the tours are going when you are there.
When you travel with kids and are staying at a hotel, after the kids go to bed and the lights are out, there isn’t much the parents can do. They are relegated to the bathroom, which is the only place a light can be turned on. We decided to go to bed at the same time as our kids, because after a full day of touring around and mostly being on our feet, we were ready to sleep! This ended up being a great idea because we came back from this trip feeling rested.
I didn’t actually get any discounts or freebies for writing this post, it was such a great trip I had to tell you about it! Although I should try to get some for our next trip! If you want to read my parenting stuff, please do pop over to my Facebook page where I post free parenting information. Happy travelling!