Posted by: Ticktock | January 30, 2009

Alive – Not Alive: How Parents Explain Death to Their Kids

There are several ways to talk about death to a preschooler.

Many parents choose not to even address the subject of death because they feel that mortality is too scary and abstract for young ones to comprehend.  Truly, even adults have a hard time accepting and understanding death, so how can we expect kids to grasp the idea?  Sometimes death has to be explained because someone in the family has died, maybe even someone close like a parent.  Waiting until something horrible happens may not be the best strategy, so why not find ways to bring up death before someone actually dies?

The way that I’ve been handling the concept of death is to read my daughter a book about living things.  The book informs her as to how we classify something as alive.  Once my daughter is able to distinguish that a brick is not alive and that a plant is alive, she can move on to the idea that a dead bird is not alive and flying bird is alive.  Framing death in terms of “alive” and “not alive” helps simplify the concept.

Another way to go about broaching death to a preschooler is to simply state the facts.  Death is when your heart stops beating, your brain turns off like a tv, your body can’t move, and you are like that forever – you can never wake up again.  I feel that an explanation that direct may be too much for some children, but that shouldn’t stop parents from finding a way to get that explanation across to a young mind.  For instance, I try to incorporate death into imaginative play.  Sometimes I pretend that one of her barbies is killed by a G.I.Joe.  Inevitably, my daughter picks up the barbie and says, “that’s OK because she’s back to life now,” and I can casually respond that nothing can bring a person back from the dead.  Don’t be silly, you can’t bring Barbie back to life!

Then there’s the seperate question of an after-life.  What happens when you die?  The best answer would probably be that we don’t know.  You may want to choose this time to admit that some people believe they will live forever as angels in “heaven”; certainly, you should explain heaven if your family is experiencing a death, as your child will be hearing a lot about heaven.  Secular parents can use heaven as a starting point to explain how even though people die, they can live on in our memories, and even when they fade in our memories, they can live on in photographs and videos; in addition, their legacy lives on in their children and grandchildren.

Some have suggested that parents should liken death to a sleep in which you never wake- “to sleep, perchance to dream”.  This is a slightly more comforting explanation because it conjures the image of a gentle slumber full of dreams, tapping into the very human desire to “rest in peace”.  This may be the best way to go about handling a personal death in the family because it allows the child to grieve appropriately and to understand the sadness felt by the rest of the family.

Once a child is older, it may be best to frame death by focusing on our singular life.  We only have one life to live, make sure you have a happy one, that you are kind, and you don’t do anything that would hurt others.  This can be worded passively by sneaking it into causal conversation or you can just come out and say it – “life is short… be a good person and enjoy it!” You can ask your child if she remembers anything from before she was born, and then explain that death won’t be any different.  You don’t remember anything before life because you didn’t exist, and you won’t remember anything after life because you won’t exist.  One life!  That’s it.

I”ve listed my ideas for discussing death with young children.  I welcome your comments too.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this. I hadn’t yet tried to explain it to my four year old, although he hasn’t really been too concerned about it. He’s seen us flush some of our dead fish, and I simply told him the fish had died, but he didn’t seem interested beyond that. I figure explaining the biology of death (including the alive/not alive distinction) is probably the best approach, because it separates the emotion from the fact. Even that probably will do little to prepare him for some event that forces him to confront it (like one of my childhood memories, the death of a family member, albeit a fairly distant one and unknown to me; I still remember staring at his body in the coffin expecting him to get up and dance or something. That’s probably why it scared me so much then).

  2. Great topic, and very relevant. Via Dale McGowan’s “Parenting Beyond Belief” blog (Meming of Life) and forum, I came across a book suitable for young (IE, preschool aged) kids called “I Miss You: A First Look at Death” by Pat Thomas. The book is one of the few on the topic that doesn’t pay homage to a particular religious slant. It explains the biology of death in simple terms, and gently explains that we don’t know what happens to a person after they die. The book also mentions that “most cultures have a belief that when a person dies, they might join all the others who have died before…” thus, the book presents this option, without stating it as religious fact. It’s a great book for opening the dialogue with a child.
    Likewise, the thing I always hear in atheist discussions about talking to children about death usually include some reminder that we weren’t in pain, or sad, or alone BEFORE we were born, and similarly, we might speculate that being dead is akin to what it was like before we were born. It’s an interesting analogy some people use with older children to stimulate discussion or perhaps ease fears about death.

    Thanks!


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