Whether it’s talking with children about death in everyday situations or trying to explain theories about death to a child who has lost a loved one, this can be a difficult subject to address. How do you explain death to kids when even adults aren’t entirely sure of the answers? The following guidelines will help you explain death to children in a way that provides comfort and understanding.
Some important tips for explaining death to kids
1. Never refer to death as “sleeping.” This is hardly an accurate description and only enhances a child’s confusion. It may also induce fears, sleep disturbances or nightmares in children who envision going to sleep and never emerging from their slumber. It can also lead to the expectation that the dead person will eventually wake up. If a young child is struggling with the comprehension of death, explain that the person’s body stopped working and their spirit is in a realm we can’t see or go to. It’s a tangible explanation that doesn’t cause the same problems the sleep explanation does. You can replace this with more mature understandings as they grow. (For parents who’s beliefs do see resurrection as a waking from death-like-sleep, make sure the child is old enough to understand the difference between death and nighttime sleep.)
2. Remember that time is a difficult concept for young kids. To a preschooler, a month might as well be eternity, and imagining the permanence of death in terms of real life can be like requiring them to do advanced algebra. So use definitive terms such as “no more” and “gone,” but realize that even then young children may have difficulty grasping the permanency of death. They may continue to ask when the deceased is coming back and you may have to repeatedly answer that death is permanent.
3. Try not to speak in absolutes about theories of what happens when you die. It’s OK to say “I don’t know,” because nobody ever does for sure. Just be sure to follow this by asking: “What do you think happens?” Then engage the child in a conversation about different theories of death. This conversation helps children come to a more sophisticated understanding of death, and it will help you better understand what is going on in their mind.
Explaining Basic Concepts About Death
Step 1: Find out what they already assume
Start off by asking the child what they understand about death before you get into your own explanations. This will give you valuable information about their current state of mind, while limiting the odds that you’ll further confuse them with your own explanations. You want to build off the child’s current understanding of death, adding to it and modifying it as needed, rather than just dumping all new information into their head. So ask them questions like…
- What do you know about death?
- What do you suppose happens when we die?
You might also ask some questions related to their understanding of abstract concepts of death, such as…
- Can dead people see?
- Do they think? Do they feel?
- Do they get hungry or worry about the future?
Step 2: Explaining why people die & the process of death
Explain to children that people die when their body stops working for one reason or another. Sometimes this might happen because of injury: a person is shot, and so their lungs stop taking in air to breathe or their heart is damaged and so it stops pumping the blood that their body needs to survive. Or it might happen because of a disease: A cancer starts growing inside and takes over their other organs so they can’t function properly, or a virus takes over their body and causes it to shut down. Most of the time it happens because as people grow really old, their body and its parts start to get worn down from all that use, and sometimes parts break. If the wrong parts break, a person can die. Just be sure to emphasize that none of these things happen very often, and that most people die of old age after having lived a long and rewarding life. This gives new people a chance to have their turn living, and is part of the cycle of life.
Step 3: Explain what it means to be dead
Explain that death is permanent. Children should understand that once someone dies, they can never come back to life. Also explain that when people are dead, they no longer feel pain, and they no longer have any physical needs, such as eating or sleeping or breathing. Since their body is dead and no longer working, the person we once knew is no longer inside their body.
Explaining Ideas About Life After Death
Step 1: Helping children distinguish between body and mind
Instruct children to close their eyes and sit completely still for a moment while imagining a place where they are doing something happy and fun. Let them do this for 30 seconds or so, and then tell them to stop and open their eyes. Explain that even though their body was still and was not doing anything during this time, they were able to think and imagine through their mind. Explain that these thoughts that make up their mind are their spirit. When people die, their body no longer works, and so they can’t see or hear or feel or move, just like when they were sitting still. But what happens to their spirit is a mystery. In the same way that you can imagine or exist without using your body, people believe that when someone dies their spirit leaves the body and goes to heaven or some other magical place. (Adjust this technique to fit your religious beliefs.)
Step 2: The separation of body and spirit
When someone dies, their spirit no longer inhabits their body. The person we loved isn’t there anymore, which is why people say they’ve “passed on.” Where they’ve passed on to, that’s the big mystery, since dead people can’t come back to life and tell us.
Step 3: Concepts of heaven or life after death
The last part is to explain what you believe happens to a person’s spirit once they pass on. Though this may vary according to your beliefs, here are some ideas that can offer kids comfort:
- Heaven might be like a place that is all around us, yet we can’t see it, hear it, or feel it. Scientists say that there are many more dimensions all around us that we don’t notice and can’t see, almost like a ghost world. Much like air, these realms are everywhere around us though we don’t notice that they’re there. Heaven might be like slipping into this other dimension, so that those we love are so close they might be touching us at this very moment, but we can’t even tell that they’re there.
- Heaven might be like a place where everyone loves each other and can be close to God, doing whatever they’ve ever dreamed of doing and just enjoying each other’s company. And whenever we do something special here on Earth or wish for those we’ve lost, maybe a little window opens up and they can look upon us almost like they were watching TV.
- After you die, a person’s spirit might leave the body and be free of physical limitations. Maybe people can travel around the Universe or sail above the trees like a bird. Maybe they can be visiting strange worlds around distant stars and then whisk themselves right back in time to see us tucked in bed at night.
- Some believe that when you are dead you are aware of nothing; having no pain or suffering, and are waiting for Jesus to bring you back to life again.
It’s best to offer more than one explanation while engaging children in a discussion about the various possibilities. You can also read more in our section: When children ask what happens when you die.
Step 4: Be sure to keep some of the mystery
Too many adults try to explain theories about death in a factual manner. It’s been our experience that this comes back to bite them sooner or later. The only TRUE fact is that nobody knows for certain what happens after you die, and adults are just as confused on the matter as kids. If you try to pass off your explanations as an inalienable fact, this rigid thinking gives children no leeway in forming beliefs that will be more comforting to them. It can also create intellectual conflicts when a rigid explanation of life after death breaks down: “Why can’t kitty be with mommy in heaven? Why is there a difference between what happens when people die versus what happens when pets die?”
So in whatever explanations you give, be sure to keep some of the mystery. It’s perfectly OK to say I don’t know or I’m not exactly sure; it’s alright to engage in speculation, and it’s better if kids have flexibility in their beliefs on this matter.