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How can I discuss death and dying with my kids?

Dear Mama Drama:

I have two children ages 3 and 5. We have a family member who has been diagnosed with cancer and her prognosis does not look good at this point. I’m not sure how to tell my children about this or even if I should tell them. I also don’t know how much to tell them.

Death was not something discussed openly in my family growing up and I have always been uncomfortable talking about it. I want to change that for my children, so any ideas you have will be greatly appreciated.

~ Uncertain Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Uncertain:

Father’s Day: An Emotional Day When You’re Celebrating Without A Father

Father’s Day is not what it used to be.  I’ve gotten used to many of the milestones I have faced since I became a widow, almost 4 years ago.  I can jolly us through Christmas and be thankful on Thanksgiving.  I can even look at his birthday as a celebration of his life.  But Father’s Day is a day devoted to celebrating fathers.  And the fact that my kids have lost theirs…well…that can’t be glossed over.

Mama Drama: Distressed About Death

Dear Mama Drama:

My 3 1/2 daughter has become very anxious about death. Long story short, we got fish and 2 of them died. I nearly didn’t tell her and just replaced the fish, but decided it might be a good life lesson.

Now she is worried about me dying and I haven’t found a way to make her feel better about the situation. She doesn’t seem too traumatized about the fish anymore, but is worried about the people in her life

Do you have any ideas or book suggestions that I can use to address her anxiety? I need it too…it is very disconcerting when she looks at me and says “you’re going to die at some point, Mommy.”

~Distressed Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Distressed:
I am glad you told her the truth about the fish. It’s a good place to start the conversation about death with preschool age children. The fact that she says that you are also going to die someday, even though it’s hard to hear, means she really understands on some level. Next comes working with her (and yourself) to not be afraid of that fact.

Our children often tell us they don’t ever want us to die. It is a natural instinct to tell them we’ll never leave them or avoid the conversation altogether. But death is a part of life and, as your fish demonstrated, will show up when you least expect it. Having conversations about death before there is a huge emotional issue attached to it can help both of you feel more accepting and less anxious about death.

Be honest. When your daughter says, “you’re going to die at some point, Mommy,” respond honestly. “You’re right. We will all die sometime, but we hope it will be later than sooner.”  Use it as an opportunity to talk about enjoying the time we do have together instead of worrying about when we won’t. It is also a good reinforcer for being thoughtful about how we treat each other everyday.

If she hasn’t already, your daughter will eventually ask what happens after you die. Think about how you want to respond ahead of time. If you are prepared for the conversation, you’ll feel more comfortable when she does ask. Tell her about your own beliefs as simply as you can. I also encourage parents to share beliefs of people in different cultures and religions. This helps children to honor and value the beliefs of all people and to have options for understanding death.

Books are a wonderful way to address the topic of death. The Fall of Freddy the Leaf is a lovely metaphor describing the cycle of a leaf’s life through the seasons. Gentle Willow demonstrates the issues of aging and illness. The Goodbye Boat is a beautiful picture book and Everett Anderson’s Goodbye helps to understand the emotions associated with the grief cycle. While it isn’t a book ,the circle of life scene from The Lion King is also a good lesson.

Trust your gut as you talk with your daughter, be honest, and don’t be afraid to say you that don’t know. Let her know you do the best you can to take care of yourself and be safe, but yes, everyone will die and none of us know when it is our time. Having a plan for who will care for you kids if something happens to you before they are grown can also help you both feel more comfortable.

For more information specifically related to telling a child about a family member who is dying, please read the Mama Drama post Discussing Death and Dying.

Please share your thoughts or resources about death and dying.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in our next column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.