Shevonne Hunt is the host of Kinderling Conversation.
“Mummy, will I die?”
The question was asked at the breakfast table, over a bowl of cereal. My son’s innocent, chubby-cheeked face was open and earnest.
I don’t have a good track record when it comes to talking to my kids about existential questions. Just ask my daughter who thinks God is a cross between Santa and the Big Friendly Giant (don’t ask, I started with the best of intentions). So perhaps I should have taken a moment to consider my response.
If you have an inquisitive child asking about death, I recommend you heed the advice of psychologist Karen Young from Hey Sigmund, who has a much more effective way of addressing this topic.
Here is some of her excellent advice.
Is it normal for kids to ask about dying?
Absolutely! Kids hear about dying in fairy tales and many of them will experience the death of a pet or a family member. Fear about dying is particularly common in four- to eight-year-olds. They have curious minds and are figuring out how the world works. It’s completely understandable that their curiosity would extend to what happens when we die. It’s great that they ask about it, rather than trying to work out the answers themselves. It’s important that they feel that nothing is off limits when it comes to talking to you. Death and dying is just another thing their wide open minds will be curious about.
What’s an appropriate response?
It’s best to be honest and open with them. If you leave anything out, or if they get a sense that there is something you’re not telling them, they can tend to fill in the gaps themselves and this might be more frightening than the truth. Talk about the physical part of death - this will help you present the facts in a way they can understand. Try something like, "When people die, it means their bodies have stopped working. They don’t eat or drink or breathe or move any more." They might ask about whether people feel pain or whether they feel lonely or cold. These are all great questions - again, answer honestly, "No, when people die they don’t feel any bad feelings and they don’t feel anything uncomfortable." If they ask something and you don’t know the answer, it’s completely okay to say "I don’t know." If you like, this might be the time to ask them what they think so you can correct any misunderstandings they have.
When you’re talking to children about death, it’s best to use words such as ‘death’, ‘died’ or ‘dying’. Try to avoid phrases such as, "They go away for a long time," or "they just go to sleep and they don’t wake up". The problem with using these explanations is that they might transfer it to their own experience, and worry that if you go away you might not come back, or if they go to sleep they might not wake up. It’s important to be honest about death being forever, and to explain clearly that the person won’t come back. It can be helpful at this point to add a reminder that, "we never forget people when they die. They live on in our hearts and in our memories."
How can I make him feel ok about it?
Acknowledge his fear, "It can be scary to think about death, can’t it?" Then, stick to the facts that you know. It can help to talk about it in the context of the life cycle, so they can understand death is generally something that happens when people are older and have lived their lives. Something like, "All things that are born then grow and get older and they don’t die until their bodies are too old to keep working."
How can I stop him worrying about his own death?
Once you’ve had the conversation that most people only die when their bodies are too old to work anymore, they might then point out the people they know who have died before they got "very old". At this point, respond by pointing out how they are different to those people who have died young, "You are healthy, your body is young and strong, and you are safe." Again, ask them what they think about so you can help them to correct any misunderstandings they might have. It’s also important that they realise that just because they think about it, doesn’t mean it will happen.
How can I make him feel secure when nothing is a guarantee?
Often when kids ask this, their primary concern is, "Am I safe?" or "What will happen to me (if you and dad die)?" Acknowledge that thinking about people dying can feel scary, and that it’s normal to worry about this. It can also be helpful to ask them what they think. This can uncover any worries that might be driving the question, such as, "What if there will be nobody to look after me if you die." When you hear these worries, answer them honestly and directly, "There are so many people who love you who will always be there to take care of you if something happens." Let them know that most people don’t die unless they are very old or when they have been very sick for a long time, and that you (and they) are very young and healthy.
You can find more of Karen Young’s excellent advice at her website: Hey Sigmund!
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