“What’s Chip doing?” asked my preschooler. He pointed to a dead chipmunk resting in a pile of fall leaves.
“He’s sleeping,” I quickly answered, hurriedly maneuvering my three-year-old son and eighteen-month-old daughter to our car.
I was surprised by my answer. I always thought I’d be the kind of mom who would be open and honest. No rose-colored glasses, no life filter.
The exchange with my son made me wonder. When are children able to comprehend death? I imagine, like most things, it depends on the maturity and temperament of your child. Certainly my three-old-year-old isn’t ready. But someday he will be and what will I say, what will I do?
Unfortunately, the passing of a loved one or family pet will accelerate your death talk timeline. You won’t be able to push your kids into the car, like I did after seeing the dead chipmunk, and drive away from the patchy spot.
When you and your family decide it’s time to talk about death, how will you teach the concept?
5 Ideas for Introducing Death to the Curious Child
1. Teach About the Life Cycle
Everyone and everything lives and dies. Reassure your child with this biological truth. Plants, animals (e.g. chipmunks), people.
So far in my son’s lifetime, we’ve only talked about death once and it was to discuss why the green leaves change colors. I explained that the leaves die and fall off the trees; that’s why the season is called fall or autumn.
2. Watch Good Movies About Death
Movies are such a phenomenal teaching tool. I’ve always agreed with Bill, the antagonist from Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), that “a fish flapping on the carpet and a fish not flapping on the carpet” is the perfect visual image of life and death. It’s “so powerful that even a four-year-old [B.B., Bill’s daughter] with no concept of life or death knew what it meant.” Here a movie provides a light introduction to a very weighty subject.
There are so many good movies out there for teaching about death that cater to all age groups – early childhood (ages 4-7), middle childhood (ages 8-12), adolescence (ages 13-18), as well as several supernatural series (touching on the theme of loss). Obviously, some movies like Kill Bill Vol. 2 (eek!) aren’t appropriate for young children. In this case, you may want to show clips instead (haha!).
3. Read Good Books About Death
4. Engage in Life-Affirming Activities
Even something as simple as taking a nature walk, stopping to notice life in all its forms (e.g. people, plants, animals, and insects) helps you remember why it’s great to be alive. Say “yes” to life by creating art, learning something new, playing a sport, or telling/showing the people you love how much they mean to you.
5. Have a Gratitude Practice
Focus on being alive: you and your child are living in this great, big world! Talk about all the things that make their lives worth living. Your children will focus less on their death fears and more on their life pleasures (e.g. helping others).
A Final Thought – From the Pillow
Don’t sugarcoat the facts about death. Do your little ones a favor by normalizing it.
So be kind and realistic when discussing death. Don’t shy away from this difficult subject when your child is ready.
How will you introduce death to your kiddos? How will you make it a little less scary?