12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death (Part I)

By Wendy Thomas Russell | June 19, 2012 | 5 comments

Let’s face it, talking about the Big D with the little humans we love more than anything in the world ain’t easy. All we want to do is protect our kids — is that so wrong? — and here comes Mother Nature to screw it all up:

Hey, guess what, darling? I’m going to die! But don’t worry, because you’re going to die, too! In fact, everyone you’ve ever loved or will ever love is going to DIE! But don’t mind that. Let’s go get some ice cream.

Yeah, it pretty much sucks — and it sucks for every parent on the planet. But, believe it or not, that doesn’t mean it has to be an awful or depressing or scary topic of conversation. In fact, talks about death can be some of the most rich and textured talks you’ll ever have with your kids.

Here are the first six of 12 common mistakes parents make in talking to their kids about death. The other second six are here.

1. We wait until tragedy strikes to start up the conversation.

It never feels like the right time to broach the subject of death with our kids, which is why many of us put off the initial talk until tragedy strikes and the conversation is forced upon us. Unfortunately, by that point, we’re stressed and sad; our kids are confused and scared; and our minds are flooded with all the things we need to get done. Coping is often the best we can do.

Having thoughtful, hopeful conversations with our children about the the cycle and meaning of life requires a clear mind. So, before something happens, be on the lookout for any and all excuses to have these talks. A dead bird in the yard can be a fantastic point of entry. Taking the time to explore the bird’s death, what “dead” means, and why the bird died can open up those lines of communication in remarkably effective ways. Of course, many parents put off these conversation because they’re children are young and/or they themselves are sensitive to the subject. Each child is different, of course, but generally kids want to hear about death much earlier than we expect. We know they’re ready when they start asking questions: “Why is that bird not moving?” “What happened to the evil queen?” “Where did your grandma go?”

2. We use euphemisms. 

Passed away. Taken away. Resting place. Went to sleep.  Left. These terms are fine for adults, who know the score, but they’re terrible for kids, who might find it really damn creepy that their uncle was “taken away.” These terms, as well as many of them provided by religious imagery, are just too abstract for a young children, says Earl Grollman, who wrote the excellent book Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child.

Instead, use the real words: Die. Death. Kill. Murder. Suicide. Coffin. Cremation. Funeral. When we speak directly and specifically — even if the words seem sharp and awkward in our mouths at first — we avoid painful confusion and misunderstandings, Grollman says.

3.  We talk too much.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. As I mentioned last week, we parents want nothing more than to comfort our kids. Soothing them is in our nature. To hold back from saying things that will make a child feel better is one of the more difficult aspects of parenting. But when it comes to talking about death, experts say, less is more.

Explain death as simply as possible, then step back and let listening take over. Nods and hugs are fine, but parents who try too hard to comfort with words can end up explaining more than than a child wants, or is ready, to hear. When in doubt, try turning the questions back on the child, suggests Grollman. When a child asks: “What did Grandma look like after she died?,” a parent might answer: “What do you think she looked like?” This gives us insight into our children’s imaginations and helps us guide the conversations where they need to go.

4. We shield kids from the death of pets.

One could argue that part of the reason we have beloved pets is to familiarize us with the idea of death, let us “practice” mourning, and remind us that life goes on after they die —and the pain does lessen. But, so often, we shield our children from the reality of a pet death — and, therefore, pass up the chance to introduce our children to the very real sadness that comes with it. We also miss the opportunity to let our kids build up their own coping mechanisms.

It may seem harsh, but encouraging our children to be present when our pets are euthanized and/or allowing our children to be involved in the mourning process with us (rather than, say, leaving the room to cry), we are teaching our kids how to mourn and move on. We are teaching them it’s okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

5. We don’t give our kids anything to do.

When your children lose someone they love, they benefit from being brought into the fray, as it were, rather than sequestered away from it. Modern therapists not only condone taking young children to funerals — they encourage it. Unless the child refuses to go (which rarely happens, I’m told), kids should be able to witness and participate in the catharsis that funerals bring. Also, children need confirmation of death much more so than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent event. They may even await a loved one’s return.

“Participation helps soften the pain, enhance the healing process, and provide an opportunity for acceptance and transformation,” says Lynn Isenberg, the author of a book called Grief Wellness: The Definitive Guide to Dealing with Loss“When a child can participate in a loved one’s passing, it creates an action, a sense of doing, a sense of purpose, around the loss. A child can plan a ceremony, create a ritual, write words to share with family and/or friends, design an (activity) around healing… especially if the activity was directly related to the person who has died.”

6.  We view heaven as a necessary solace

Even nonreligious parents have a hard time leaving heaven out of death talks with their kids. We use heaven (yes, even Doggie Heaven) to put a positive spin on something heart-wrenchingly painful. But when we do that, we are at risk of blurring the line between heaven and nature. There is nothing “bad” in nature. (This may be the one thing religious and nonreligious people agree on!) When we offer up heaven as a knee-jerk reaction (rather than a true and honest belief), we lose out on showing kids the true and honest glory of nature. Things are born, they live and they die — and it is this necessary cycle that makes the world so freaking beautiful. Life and death are intricately related. If we don’t have death, we don’t have life. There is no splitting them apart. And if we think about it for any amount of time at all, we realize we wouldn’t want to.

Heaven would be awesome, no doubt about it. But there also is solace in the predictable logic of science. Reminding a child that everything ends and dies, and that this is the nature of the universe, can and does help, says Eve Eliot, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher living from New York. For example, she often cites “the end of the day when the sun goes down, the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the time in (kids’) lives when they have to leave the comfort of being home with their moms and enter school for the very first time. The very next inhale will be ‘lost’ on the very next exhale.”

A side note: I suppose a great many religious people will take issue with No. 6. As they see it, the point of life is to follow divine law (which commands that they be a good person, etc.) so as to ensure a heavenly place beside the Big Guy Upstairs. But many of us nonreligious types believe that dead people simply go back to the same nonexistence they experienced (or didn’t experience) before they were born. We don’t become souls — we become memories. So perhaps the point of living isn’t to get somewhere else but to collect memories that make us happy and “give” memories that make other people happy. Being a good person is vital in this scenario — because if other peoples’ memories are the last vestiges of ourselves that we leave behind, we want to make those memories as good as we possibly can.

Click here for Part II,  and here to find out why heaven is rarely helpful when talking with kids about death.


  1. Chris Bartley says:

    Nicely done, Wendy. I’ve read every one of your blog posts, but the side note to #6 is my favorite piece.


  2. Elaine says:

    WIth miss curious almost 6 year old, I have tried to keep it very simple and honest. The circle of life thing. Everything is born and grows and everything eventually dies, which means we need to treasure every moment we have together.

    So far it’s not psychologically scarred her, and death seems to be one of the popular topics for her at the moment. I think it’s also important for parents to keep their cool.

    Why is it that both the God talk and the Death talk all of a sudden seem so much more important than the sex one :)

  3. Derek says:

    In the last two years we’ve had two longtime pets (Huskies) die. In both cases they had to be euthenised. In both cases we had our 5/6 and 2/3 year old children present. I would definitely do it the same way again. No avoidance, no histrionics, we grieve and miss those who die but accept that’s how life (and death) works.

    We explained it simply and clearly to them. We said our goodbyes together, grieved together and they were both remarkably resilient. Unsurprisingly the younger child was much less impacted than the older. But for all of us it felt very natural and completely honest. There was grieving, sadness and tears but nothing that I could identify as trauma for either child then or since.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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