“Mommy, I Don’t Want To Die”: How to Talk to Your Kids about Death

Take Charge on 11.09.12
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Photo: Britt Reints

My daughter has recently become aware of her own mortality. Death is not just something permanent that happens to animals and grandparents; it’s something that will someday happen to her. At 7, she’s making this realization a few years sooner than the experts predicted she would. At 32, I feel completely unprepared to answer her questions or assuage her fears.

We haven’t tried to hide death from her or her older brother. She’s been to the funeral of two great-grandparents, and I had to tell her recently that I was going to be with my own parent while he died. Both her father and I believe in heaven, and we’ve discussed this belief her entire life. My parenting philosophy has always been that openness and honesty are the best defense against fear, but neither seems to be making a dent in her anxiety.

She’s cool with God and thinks Jesus is the best, but she is afraid to leave behind what she knows. She’s afraid, too, of having to die sooner than she wants. She’s afraid she’ll miss her mom.

All of these fears make perfect sense to me, and I even share a few of them. I hate not being able to promise her that she’ll live a very long time. I want to be able to tell her exactly what she’ll experience after this life. But here is where that open and honest policy backfires: I refuse to give her definitive answers when I have none.

The experts say to stick with short, simple answers.

Avoid complicated responses with too many words that could confuse or overwhelm a child.

“I don’t know” is pretty short and simple, but it doesn’t offer much comfort or clarity.

Hospice Net suggests looking for unemotional opportunities to talk with children about death. In other words, it might be better to talk about death on a random Tuesday during dinner than when everyone is crying because Grandpa just died. That makes sense, although I think it’s something many parents may be uncomfortable with initially.

All of the experts seem to agree on one thing: keep talking and listening.

And so we do. I keep telling her that I don’t know exactly when she or I will die, but that I hope it will be far into the future. I tell her that I’m not sure what happens to us after we die, but that I believe it is something good and not scary. I tell her that I believe I will be able to love her forever, no matter where I am.

But mostly I tell her that everything is going to be OK, even though I’m not exactly sure what “OK” will look like.

What do you tell your kids about death?

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