Let’s talk to kids: death

1 Oct

Kicking off my “Let’s talk to our kids series” this morning.

I could try to organize my approach into a checklist, but for now I’ll outline the basic ways I’ve answered questions and/or introduced “difficult” topics to kids in my life. I’ve been having these conversations with other kids since I was a child, and have honed my tone over 30 years of childcare.

  • Be honest about your own feelings and responses to the situation/issue
  • Avoid concerns about offending religious relatives by limiting your conversations to very basic facts and referring the kid/s back to their own grownups
    • Understand that people will still get offended and use your own judgement for how to proceed
  • Provide accurate information in language the kid/s can understand
  • Expect to make mistakes and correct them when possible
  • Expect follow up questions
  • Provide resources: videos, written materials, other people
    • Looking up materials for kids can help you organize your thoughts and predict some of the questions they’ll answer
    • You’ll learn stuff

My 8 year old daughter is the only child in our very large extended family who knows that my dad (her Papa) is dying. That’s probably not true–kids are smart, and observant. It’s more accurate to say that she is the only child who has consistent, honest, factual conversations about the fact that her Papa has cancer and is going to die.

I answer my kid’s questions–spoken and unspoken. She wants to know why we’re in Walla Walla, why Papa closed his shop, why he doesn’t get out of bed. I want her to understand why the adults around her are tense and sad. I want her to be as prepared as possible for the changes she observes in her Papa and to know that his illness isn’t contagious–it’s safe for her to visit him.

When I mentioned to Sylvia that these conversations aren’t part of her cousin’s experience and sheepishly requested that she keep her information to herself, she was appalled. “People don’t talk to their kids? That’s stupid! Why not?” Let’s start with how I answered that question, then move on to how we talk about death.

Many adults believe kids can’t/don’t/shouldn’t understand certain issues. Unless their religion/culture provides a specific tradition of when kids may be introduced to these topics, they don’t get around to the conversations. In the United States, we lack a unified culture or religious background to offer a framework for how to discuss certain topics and issues.  Without a clear tradition or code for where to send our children to learn about sex and reproduction, death, money, etc individual adults flounder when faced with questions from the children around us. We worry about offending other adults, scaring the children, revealing our own vulnerability.

We’ve created a vacuum of information, leaving kids to figure things out on their own based on information they glean from each other and what they read. Because the kids internalize the sense of discomfort (or even taboo) we’ve created, they don’t ask clarifying questions and they never fully understand what’s going on emotionally, culturally, philosophically, or even physically with some of the most essential functions of the human body.

It’s true that young children lack a formal framework to discuss the philosophical issues  around death and dying. So do I. We can still have conversations about what we observe around us: you stepped on that worm, it’s dead now. The bug is squished on our window, the cat killed a mouse, a friend’s mom was killed in a car crash, your grandfather is sick and won’t get better.

My kid isn’t traumatized by these conversations. We haven’t had one “talk” about death, or sex, or money, or equity, or racism, sexism, war…we have ongoing conversations about the world around us. These conversations help us understand and support each other.

Try it.

Short list of resources I’ve found helpful in discussing cancer with an 8 year old:

The Canadians really do it right:



Decently presented general information:


This is a very informative book, gently presented. It mentions “heaven”, so it’s also a good way to start/continue your conversations about what happens after death.


Not for kids, but this excellent coloring book made my sick dad laugh.



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