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Do Young Children Really Need To Know About Death?

Do Young Children Really Need To Know About Death?

In the last month our family was deeply rocked by death. A senior member of our immediate family, after a yearlong battle with an unforgiving illness, gave into the inevitable and died. My wife and I were both saddened and philosophical about this person’s demise, and were left to contend with our own grief and make sense of it for our young son as well. He was naturally very, very curious about it all.

Some parents believe that exposure to the darkness and myriad of feelings associated with death is too much too soon for many young children and that children are best given the most sanitized version of death, or kept in the dark altogether. The fear is that the child will be confused or possibly traumatized by the death of a friend or relative. While I agree that it, being death, can be tricky terrain to navigate with a child, the rich teaching moment that is death cannot compare to virtually any momentous occurrence in life (OK, maybe the birth of a child trumps death in the realm of teaching moments, but it holds a close second).

The fact is (not to be too rudimentary) but death is such an intrinsic part of life that it cannot, and should not, be overlooked. While the idea that a child could look at the world and see only life is a nice, if not deeply erroneous, idea, but death is really everywhere and deserves to be noted, by adults and children alike. And children (granted this is depending on the child) are naturally curious about death (whether it be relating to a shriveled leaf or a person who has given up the ghost) and will embrace the difficult truths of mortality if given the chance and guidance to do so. My son, who had our devoted frankness and honesty throughout this experience, was able to express sadness, curiosity and even humor in relationship to this death in the family. It was something we were all driven to discuss, and honestly, having a young child there that needed that engagement really helped move everyone through the grief in an honest and direct way. In a sense it is about building perspective for everyone involved and an inherent gratitude for life, as much a deep regard for death – the great equalizer of all things. As writer JD Roberto said it best, “Knowing how good you have it builds gratitude and, in my experience, it’s unusual for a person that dwells in gratitude to dwell in unhappiness.”

There are dozens of books out there to help adults broach the subject of death with children – some of them more effective and respectful than others. I would recommend Lifetimes by Brian Mellonie and the poignant autobiographical tale of Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (author of Strega Nona).

Have you had to delve into the subject of death with your young child? If so, what worked, what didn’t? Do you believe young children should be spared from such a difficult subject? Have you had personal experiences (from childhood or adulthood) that really colored your view of death? What would you have wanted to hear or be told in those situations?

Read more: Aging, Blogs, Cancer, Caregiving, Children, Family, Guidance, Life, Mental Wellness, Parenting at the Crossroads, Self-Help, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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3:07PM PDT on May 19, 2015

Thanks, good to know.

2:38PM PDT on May 19, 2015

Thank you Eric.

4:35AM PDT on Oct 10, 2013


3:55AM PST on Feb 10, 2013

Still remember the day my grandfather died. My mom didn't want to tell me and they left for the town where grandpa used to live without telling me why. Needless to mention there was a very strong love between the two of us. I was 5 years old. The grandmother from my father's family, in whose care I was left, thought it was important to tell me. It felt as if the sky fell on me those moments, I instantly knew and realized that we will never met again, and I felt a terrible pain for being defrauded, because I was not told and I was not allowed to see him once more.
Adults are stupid, they think children don't understand anything.

3:21PM PDT on Jun 16, 2012

as long as you teach them in an age appropriate way

12:37AM PDT on Apr 20, 2012

I find that being honest in an age appropriate way is the best way to handle it. Death is a natural occurrence. When we try to shield our young children, we end up telling tall tales that don't even make sense.

For example, I know of a family where Grandpa died. The grandkids are special needs, and so very much childlike, even as older kids. When this child was about 8, asked what happened to grandpa. Rather than tell him that grandpa died and went to heaven, they just told him that Grandpa is in the balcony. He spent so much time up there after the balcony looking for grandpa, everyone else started to worry until they found him up there. He didn't get the figurative meaning. Truth would have been much better.

5:54PM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

I think it's very important not to hide death from young children. I think if I hadn't learned about it naturally as a toddler it would have come as a horrible shock sometime later in childhood. As is, I have no traumatic feelings associated with my earliest memories of deaths, I understood it to be a part of life right from the beginning. The complicated spiritual side of things came much later, and I think my understanding of death was a lot clearer and simpler during early childhood. Adults who think children can't - or shouldn't - understand death may be putting some of their own issues off on to the child. Pondering the question of immortality of the soul, say, is probably outside the comprehension level of most young children, but they can worry about that later. The simple organic fact of death is easy for a child of any age to understand, particularly if they first encounter it OUTSIDE the context of a loved one dieing.

2:56PM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

Life and death are both sides of a coin

7:04AM PDT on Apr 11, 2012

Only if they've had a death of a family member close to them, like a mom or dad.

8:41PM PDT on Apr 3, 2012

Whatever you do, don't tell the kids that Grandpa 'went to sleep!' They could have sleep issues for the rest of their own lives! ;-)

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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