How to talk to your preschooler about death

Questions about dying are normal for kids this age. Learn how to address their morbid curiosity.

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Amy Andrews,* a Vancouver mom of two, was taken by surprise when her five-year-old daughter, Sabine* asked to have her palm read. Sabine told her mom that she wanted to know her destiny. “I asked her what ‘destiny’ meant and she replied, ‘You know, Mom… like if you live or if you die!’” says Andrews. “I was expecting those types of questions if our fish, Shiny, died, but I wasn’t expecting her to be so curious about how and when she would die.”

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As it turns out, it’s normal for kids this age to wonder about death. Their questions usually arrive after seeing death mentioned in movies, by friends or when a pet or grandparent dies, says Jillian Roberts, a child psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria in BC. “Preschoolers may amaze you with how they are able to think of things in the most profoundly complex way, but they don’t have the emotional tools to process those concepts, and it’s important for parents to demystify what death actually means.” Here’s how you can answer your little one’s big questions.

Keep it brief

According to Roberts, most preschoolers will ask straightforward questions, some of which are simple to answer, such as why people die. (“Our bodies stop working, usually when we are very old, even older than your grandparents are now.”) Others are more complex, such as when Mommy will die. (“Everybody is born and everybody dies, and someday I will die, but probably not for a long, long time.”) Offering a brief, factual answer and reassurance that she will be OK, both now and in the future, is the best way to navigate the subject.

Explain the Circle of Life

This is also a good time to discuss your spiritual beliefs, Roberts says. Even if you’re not a spiritual family, she encourages parents to explain that no one knows exactly what happens. “Let your kids know that some people believe you go to heaven,” she suggests, “and that some people believe you are born again. You can say, ‘No one really knows for sure, but what we all know is that love continues in our hearts.’” Sabine’s mom decided to sit down with her daughter to talk about the afterlife. “We had just seen the musical Cats and watched the movie All Dogs Go to Heaven, so she wanted to know, would we go to the Heaviside layer or heaven? I explained the cycle of life, that everyone, good or bad, dies at a different time, and she seemed comfortable with that,” says Andrews.

Be patient

When Ottawa mom Robyn Lam’s then-four-year-old son, Aidan, shouted at her, “You’re dead!” she responded by asking him, “Do you know what ‘dead’ means?” “Yes,” he answered, matter-of-factly. “It makes you sad when you get killed, and for one million days you won’t even wake up or see your friends again.” Months (and fewer cartoons) later, the mom of one says that although she has reminded Aidan many times that death is something serious, he still doesn’t grasp the permanence, and it continues to be a part of his make-believe play. This is also normal, reassures Roberts. Children won’t understand immediately that it’s permanent, and it will require gentle reminders. And although it may take up until the age of eight for your child to fully grasp the concept of irreversibility, his morbid curiosity will most likely fade naturally with time.

Five-year-old Sabine spent a solid week asking what her destiny was, but now she no longer checks her family members’ palms and asks if they’ll die. Her mother happily reports that Sabine’s attention soon shifted to something a little lighter — planning her sixth birthday party.

* Some names have been changed

A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline, “Dead serious,” p. 49.

 

Looking for more tips on how to talk to your kids about death? Check out this video:

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