How to Talk to Your Children About Death

April 1, 2016

Many people don’t like to talk about death, but death is a normal thing for our family. My kids have seen the circle of life—our home is on 18 acres of land and we have a lot of animals. They have seen and understand that animals die for a variety of reasons. But there is another story to this level of death. I was pregnant when my husband was hit by a semi-truck. After a while he died and was freed from his injuries. My youngest son, who is now 7, knows that he has a father that lives in heaven and knows why he is there. He has known his father’s story from his tiny beginning.

The interesting part (at least to me) is that my son doesn’t question it. This story is all he has ever known. Of course, he does ask questions about the accident and about his dad, but he doesn’t question that heaven exists. We have had discussions that Jesus is God’s son and that he died and rose again. He believes and accepts eternal life. Without a doubt my son accepts this.

What I have learned is that our children want us to be honest with them when we talk about easy subjects and when we talk about hard subjects – like death. Our children don’t want to hear that we “put an animal to sleep.” Think about that – why relate going to sleep with dying? That isn’t exactly the image I would like if I was six years old and already didn’t like going to bed. It is scarier for our children to not know what is happening than to know the truth.

It can be hard as a parent to know how to have these hard conversations. Here are a few things that can help you talk with your children about death:

Follow their lead. Answer the questions they ask appropriately. For example, if they ask what happens at a funeral home, you can say the people who work there get the body ready for the funeral. You don’t need to go into the embalming process, but if they ask more detailed questions, you will need to answer them appropriately. It is okay to tell them if you don’t know something– the two of you can find the answer together.

Also, if your child goes to a visitation or a funeral with you, tell them what to expect – tell them people will be sad, that the person’s body will be in a casket, etc. Tell them it is okay to ask you questions but to ask you quietly. Be prepared for interesting questions. For example, we went to a visitation a few weeks ago and my son asked if the person was wearing pants and how they get in the casket.

Our children just want us to be honest. They often accept our answers without a doubt. It is hard, because we, as adults, don’t often know what to think about dying. To talk about death to someone else, we first need to figure out what we believe and how we feel about it, all while being honest with ourselves. Do we really believe in eternal life and heaven?

Our children need to know that we believe what we tell them. Children are smart. They can tell when we are lying or unsure of ourselves. Our kids need to be able to feel comfortable enough to ask us questions and trust us when we answer. They need to be able to talk to us about big feelings like being sad and missing someone. So, it is our responsibility as adults and parents to be able to have these conversations with them.

We have the very special privilege of teaching our children about death, heaven, and eternal life. They have hearts full of wonder and unconditional belief, so we also need to know if we have that same unconditional belief.

Talking about death can be hard for us as adults. We think that must mean it is hard for our kids as well, but that need not be the case. Because kids are so trusting, they will talk about anything with us, as long as they can tell that we love them and are being honest with them. Perhaps it is this level of trust and openness to talk about anything that made Jesus say three times in the New Testament that we should be like little children (see Matthew 18:3; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17). Our kids trust us to speak the truth to them. Do we have the same trust in our heavenly father? Do we really believe God when He says that, through Christ, we are given victory over death?

About the Author
  • Bonnie Heikens lives in Orange City, Iowa, with her family. She serves as support staff at All Things New Therapy Services, Inc. and is currently pursuing a MSW degree.

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