What does ‘died’ mean, Mummy?

Explaining death to a child

Explaining death to children

Yesterday Elliott asked, “What does ‘died’ mean, Mummy?”

So, I’ve had some curly ones come at me in the past week or so. I think I have to prepare myself for more because we’ve hit the VERY inquisitive stage.

The first question was, “Mummy, how did the baby get in your tummy?” which I didn’t go into too much detail just yet but I’ll give you an update on that one later.

The second was, “Mummy, what does ‘died’ mean?”

So the way this death question came up all had to do with a second-hand table we had just picked up from my Aunty’s house. It belonged to my Oma and Elliott wanted to know where it came from.

I explained that it belonged to my Oma and just like Elliott has an Oma (my mum), I had an Oma too. “Where is your Oma?” Elliott asked.

“She’s not here anymore sweetheart, she died and is now in heaven.”

Elliott looked confused.

“What is heaven, Mummy?”

I could see that this conversation was going to get complicated and confusing for him.

“Heaven is a very special place where old people and very sick people go when they die,” I explained to Elliott hoping that I’d explained it the right way.

But the questions and comments continued.

“I don’t want to go to heaven when I’m old mummy, I want to go when I’m young,” continued Elliott.

“No honey, I definitely don’t want you to go to heaven when you’re young, I want you to go to heaven when you’re old,” I said trying to get the thought out of my head.

Elliott still genuinely seemed confused. He clearly didn’t understand the idea around death and dying but I know that I need to prepare myself for when the topic comes up again because I’m really not confident I handled it the best I could.

I’ve been asking myself if I should have provided more detail instead of the ‘going to heaven’ part? Should I have explained that when someone dies they can’t do anything anymore, they never wake up or is that too much for a 4-year-old?

So I searched for a few answers and here’s what I found about explaining death to a child:

  1. Don’t avoid the question and try to use less emotional times to explain death so they are prepared when it does enter their lives.
  2. Explain death in terms of a person’s body not being able to function anymore but that they don’t feel it.  (This is what I wish I had said).
  3. Keep it simple, “My Oma was very old and her body just didn’t work anymore.”
  4. Avoid euphemisms like ‘they’ve gone to sleep’ because kids may worry that if they go to sleep they may not wake up.  Duh! Why didn’t I think of it this way? I’m definitely crossing this off my list of ways to explain.
  5. Find a children’s book that explains death.

Elliott’s question certainly took me by surprise and I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. I’m also guessing that many parents stumble on their answers when their kids ask about death for the first time which is OK, we can’t always have the answers or know how to respond straight away.

I’m pretty sure there are going to be plenty more questions coming my way on this topic in the future, it’s inevitable, unfortunately, but after being able to ponder on it a little, I’m confident next time I’ll be able to give a better and less confusing response.

Have your children asked about death? How did you respond?

Eva Lewis (The Multitasking Woman)

Eva is the Editor and Owner of The Multitasking Woman - a lifestyle and parenting blog.She always has her fingers in many different pies but wouldn't have it any other way. Eva is a Mum to her 4-year-old son, 2 month old daughter, two chickens, one dog and a fish called Bob and a wife to Mr G. They all live happily in their little cottage on the outskirts of Brisbane.

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11 Comments

  1. May 17, 2016 / 10:05 am

    There is a great children’s book called The Invisible String which isn’t about death per se, but explains how people are still connected even when they aren’t around each other. Its fabulous for helping children not be so scared that death or loss will mean they lose a connection to someone. Man, it is a hard topic to explain though! I’m an adult and I still don’t quite understand it!
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  2. May 17, 2016 / 10:11 am

    These sorts of questions haven’t come up for me yet but you have some great tips on how to handle them here.. Thank you 🙂

  3. May 17, 2016 / 11:40 am

    We’ve had the ‘died’ question but have now moved into ‘dying’ eg “I’m going to die if I don’t get a drink.” Curly doesn’t even bgein to cover it! Thanks for the tips.

  4. May 17, 2016 / 12:14 pm

    I had my neighbours kids over the other week (Miss 5 and Mr 2) and they were wondering where my gold fish went. Not sure how to answer, I said it was on holidays, visiting a friends fish, I didn’t know how to explain to them the D word and most certainly was not up for questions like this! Great tips Eva x
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  5. May 17, 2016 / 12:51 pm

    I’m sure you did fine. We had a good book that dealt with death – it talk about life in seasons, which was a nice analogy. Not that it’s fun losing a beloved pet but it definitely helps if kids first exposure to death can be of the animal variety>

  6. May 17, 2016 / 12:55 pm

    I’m almost glad that we are so bad at keeping our fish alive because way back in the day it made it easier to explain what death is and why it matters. The fish analogy worked for me and for a while there Lottie thought that people who died were all buried under the gum in our backyard. They take from our words what they will! x
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  7. May 17, 2016 / 2:24 pm

    I have had to deal with a lot of death questions from young children as my middle son died by SIDS when he was very little. I agree, you have to use plain, direct and simple language that may even sound harsh to an adult’s ear. I had to be really careful not use the euphemisms like “go to sleep” as that did cause concern for my eldest.
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  8. May 17, 2016 / 3:55 pm

    I’m sure you handled it all just fine Eva. Those are fantastic tips you’ve dot pointed there! I can’t remember if my kids asked me that question when they were little … but most likely they did. I do recall getting asked lots of curly ones! 🙂 xo
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  9. May 17, 2016 / 4:52 pm

    We talk to our boys about death and they know they have a big sister and brother in heaven. Often they will ask where heaven is or why do people die and I’ve found that answering their questions honestly works the best.

  10. May 17, 2016 / 8:10 pm

    We first encountered this with our kids when my Pop died – the kids were about 3 & 5. We chose not to take them to the funeral though sometimes I wonder if this was the right decision (they were pretty good kids and would most likely have behaved during the service, after all we took them to church every week), Miss 19 in particular seemed to really struggle with it and kept wanting to visit Pop in heaven, or talk to him or send him a letter. So cute but also heartbreaking.

  11. May 17, 2016 / 10:10 pm

    It’s a hard situation. Amazingly my kids haven’t asked a lot about it. I don’t think I’ve ever had this conversation really, come to think of it.
    I’m not sure how I would answer it.
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