Talking to Young Children About Death

Dr. Kelly Bird
“We have to move the worm out of the road even though it’s dead. If a car smushes it, it can’t become food for a bird!” – Junior Kindergarten student  
The time our ELC students spend outdoors introduces them to all kinds of nature’s beautiful creatures. It also brings them face to face with the fact that all living things are born, and, also, must die. This reflection by one of Ed Donahue’s students last year reminds us how students’ intimacy with the outdoors serves to normalize this stage of life. Of course, when facing the death of an individual the conversation feels more complicated. One must balance the reality of death and the emotions that accompany it.  
Children must be given space to feel the range of emotions that accompany death and see us feel those same emotions. Moving through emotions is one of the most important things that we can teach our children. As a parent shared with me, “In our house we talk about moving from grieving tears to happy tears.” There are a number of strategies that families can lean on to move through these emotions with young children such as: sharing pictures, telling stories, reliving shared experiences, visiting restaurants or places, and allowing traditions that the person was involved in to live on.  
In The Goodbye Book, by Todd Parr shares that sometimes kids don’t want to talk about hard stuff. Often, it is helpful to ask permission before entering into these discussions. This gives children some control over the conversation and also indicates to them that it is ok to talk about hard stuff and that when they are ready you are there to support them. Likewise, you might also say to your child, “Is it ok if I share how I am feeling?”  
When a child asks, as they inevitably do, “Will I die? Will you die?” or “Where do people go after they die?” start by asking, “What do you think?” Children have had exposure to death in nature, movies, and in stories. They have likely already formulated some of their own thoughts.   
As with most complicated topics, start with what they know. Children will tell you what they are ready to hear.  
Resources for continuing the conversation at home:  
The Goodbye Book, by Todd Parr  
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