I don't remember my mother bringing up death, well, ever. But I do remember my first encounter with death. I was 8, and a girl in the year above me in school passed away. A couple of friends told me, on the bus ride home, "I heard she died — she fainted, then her parents took her to the family doctor, and by the time they reached, she was already cold." Looking back on this memory, I think of my jaw-dropping open, while friends on each side of me continued on with the details. Talking to your child about death is one of the most difficult things to do as a parent — my mother likely figured she could put off broaching the topic until she had to. But of course death doesn't wait for polite conversation, and children are better prepared to cope if you are open about it. But how? Romper spoke to Dr. Jeanette Raymond, a licensed clinical psychologist, to get a sense of what children need to hear.
First of all, she says, there is no right age for discussing death. "The number one rule is to always tell the truth if a child asks."
Children are naturally curious and can handle the truth, provided you contextualize it for them. Steph Auteri, mom to 3-year-old Em said she approached "death ed like sex ed," being a sexual identity writer, and used the book Death Is Stupid to discuss death before their cat had to be put down. "We would read the book together and, as we did so, relate it to the fact that our cat, Kooshie was getting older and he was very sick and did not feel well and that, sometime soon, he would have to leave us. We answered any questions that came up for her in the course of reading that book and relating it to Kooshie's impending reality. But didn't over-answer."
Emotional literacy for the current generation of children aged 5 to 9 (the age bracket in which most kids start noticing death) is such that it is reflected in much of the media they consume.
Years later, when I asked my mother why she never brought up death, as a subject, she said her mother didn't either, and that it was just something instinctual I'd learn about when the time was right. While our parents’ and grandparents’ generations saw death as taboo, emotional literacy is generally better today, and experts agree that talking about death and loss is natural and beneficial.
In fact, emotional literacy for the current generation of children aged 5 to 9 (the age bracket in which most kids start noticing death) is such that it is reflected in much of the media they consume. While we, at best, had Bambi, they have The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, a cartoon about the Grim Reaper and two children who befriend him. The latter being a television show, and a comical one at that, is especially important in understanding how much more open children are to the concept of death: For jokes to be made about an otherwise serious topic, the topic has to have been distilled, emotionally and socially.
Dr. Raymond recommends exploring the physical and emotional sides of death. Initially the physical presence of a person, pet, plant or whatever may no longer visible. But the relationship you had with it lives on inside you. Emotionally, explain to your child that they’ll always have memories of their loved ones in their hearts.
"Talk about the dead person, or pet, often," says Dr. Raymond. "Never cut the deceased out, or make excuses when your child asks about death — you risk them associating fear with the idea of death, which can lead to unhealthy paranoia later in life."
From wilting flowers to hair falling in the shower, children unknowingly witness death all the time. "It’s the concept that needs explaining," says Dr. Raymond, "with [its] timing being predictable and sometimes not."
Address the subject head-on if you’re watching a nature documentary with your child, or reading a book together that deals with death. Pixar's 2017 smash Coco followed the main character, Miguel, through the land of the dead on Día de los Muertes (the Day of the Dead), providing a platform for families to discuss death.
Natural death is easier to talk about, and consequently easier for your child to understand. "It’s mother nature’s way," says Dr. Raymond.
It can be harder, however, to explain violent death — just as it is harder for an adult to understand.
"The difference is with unexpected or unnatural causes of death such as murder, accidents, illness, natural disasters, and man-made [ones like] war," says Dr. Raymond.
Help your child make sense of the world even if you, personally, were never given that chance.
Faced with circumstances that are tougher to explain, tougher to comprehend yourself, it is important that you don't obscure the details, or try to keep it from your child. Kids are often more intelligent than we are led to believe. Honor their intelligence by being as truthful as possible, says Dr. Raymond. "Don't pretend that death doesn't exist or that the dead one has just gone away for a while," says Dr. Raymond, "help your child make sense of the world even if you, personally, were never given that chance."
And follow your kid's cues. When a child asks questions about death, they’re ready to handle it. That said, there’s a delicate balance, suggests Dr. Raymond, between bombarding your child with information and being open. The aim is to give them space to explore and work through any feelings that arise from the loss.
In Steph Auteri's case, her daughter was still unclear about death after Kooshie had died. "[Em] wanted the doctor to bring [Kooshie] back. But we've tried to convey that everyone dies eventually and, yes, it is sad and stupid, but it's also a natural part of life."
It’s normal to feel sad at the loss of a cat. Let your child know that it’s fine to cry, to grieve, and to remember them fondly once time has healed emotional wounds. "Missing someone is OK," says Dr. Raymond: "Moreover, it’s a normal part of re-calibrating one’s relationship with the dead."
My first taste of re-calibration came when I lost my grandfather when I was in my teens. He went from being an ever-present part of the family to someone who we referred to in past tense and who we only saw in faded photographs.
Once your child has had a conversation about death and loss, it’s important that your family and friends know that they have that foundation. "Make sure aunts, uncles and grandparents follow suit" and allow your kid to explore the topic, says Dr. Raymond. In the event that your child doesn’t process the topic of death well, you can reach out to your pediatrician for further advice.
We all want sunny, blemish-free childhoods free of darkness and despair for our kids, but death is a part of life, and a part of the world that kids need to learn alongside the names for all the animals and all the planets. The woods are lovely, dark and deep — if it isn't Goldie the goldfish or Kooshie the cat, death will find its way into your child's life eventually. You have the opportunity now to give your kid a framework for processing loss before it happens, fingers crossed.