Explaining death to a child
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- Keep it simple, “My Oma was very old and her body just didn’t work anymore.”
- 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.
- 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?