'Will It Hurt When I Die?': Talking to Kids About Death, Their Mortality, and What It Means to Be Alive

Talking about dying with your kids isn't easy. Experts weigh in on what to say and how to say it when kids first start asking questions about their own death.

An image of a mom speaking with her daughter on stairs.
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Recently, our kids were playing with some neighbors in our front yard when one of them mentioned offhand that both her grandfathers had "passed away." James, my 4-year-old, was perplexed. "What does that mean?" he asked. "It means," I said, when the neighbor wandered off, "that they died."

At bedtime that night, hours later, James looked at me from beneath his comforter. "Do only grown-ups die, not kids?" It was only then I realized that he had continued to think about death, long after that initial interaction. Though we had talked about death before, in the context of great-grandparents and animals, this was the first time James seemed to realize that the "rules" of death might also apply to him.

It was just the beginning of several days of questions. "Will it hurt when I die?" "Will you be with me when I die?" I knew these wonderings were normal and certainly developmentally appropriate, but they felt a little heartbreaking, too, and I was woefully unprepared to respond. I'm firmly in the camp of being as honest as possible with my kids whenever it's appropriate, but, man, it can be really hard.

I want James and his siblings to have an objective awareness death, and therefore an appreciation for life. I can't remember not knowing that I would one day die, but I've never been more than passingly worried by the idea. I hope the same is true for my kids, and I wanted to know how to get them there, especially when the last year has brought the reality of death ever closer to so many of us.

When to Start Talking about Death

Maybe your kids aren't like my son James, who, for the moment, seems to be spending more time philosophizing about death and the potential for an afterlife than most adults. It may be tempting to use your own comfort level as the metric for broaching or avoiding the subject. But Shlomit Kirsch, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist who works with kids, parents, and young adults in Austin, Texas, cautions that guiding the conversation that way isn't always helpful. "It's often best to follow their lead," she says of young children, "and let them steer the conversation based on whatever questions they have."

Karl Rosengren, Ph.D., a professor of brain and cognitive sciences and psychology at the University of Rochester, agrees. "What we know is that children's questions are used to fill in gaps in their knowledge. Children start asking questions about death as young as 2 to 3 years of age." Dr. Rosengren encourages parents to be open and honest with children as they begin to make sense of this complex, often confusing idea. He points to Mexico, where celebrations like Día de los Muertos and other cultural traditions lead to a more open embrace of death and include children as a matter of course. "We often try to hide from death here in the U.S.," he says, "and don't have the emotional or cognitive energy to handle our children's questions."

The key here is that children are ready to talk about death when they are ready to talk about death—some sooner than others, and some in their own time. They will start thinking about death and dying with or without our input, so we might as well be prepared to walk alongside whenever they're ready.

How to Prepare to Talk About Death

It's normal if parents feel uncomfortable having these discussions with kids. "The topic of death can make adults themselves feel uncomfortable," says Dr. Kirsch. "However, it's important to remember that death is inevitably a part of life and that children begin to see it all around them from very early on."

Dr. Rosengren, who has been studying children's understanding of death for over 20 years, says, "Don't react quickly or make fast decisions. For this to be successful, parents have to actively engage in thinking about what they want to achieve as parents." Rather than only reacting to what's happening in the moment, it's important to think through what these conversations will look like, particularly as it regards death.

This means, in part, considering how you'll answer certain tricky questions, and also clarifying what role your own religious and spiritual views play in your understanding of life and death. Put another way, if we want to be comfortable talking to our kids about death, we may have to do some uncomfortable work, as parents and co-parents, beforehand. "A key part of this is understanding what the parents themselves believe about death," Dr. Rosengren says, "and if a family has multiple adults in the household, how consistent those beliefs are."

If those beliefs don't always overlap from parent to parent, that's OK, says Dr. Kirsch. "This is a good time to explain the value of believing and model respect for belief systems that differ from your own."

What to Say and How to Say It

Help kids feel safe

When it comes to these conversations, our primary goal should be making sure our kids leave feeling safe and looked after, whether or not they have all the details worked out. "The key is to be honest but offer information at their developmental level," Dr. Kirsch says. "Remember to offer reassurance at the end of each question with a reminder that you don't expect your child to experience this for a very, very long time and that they are safe."

Listen to them

Part of feeling safe is feeling seen or understood, so it's vital that parents take time to listen to what their kids are really saying. "We find that parents quite often don't answer the actual question that that the child has asked," Dr. Rosengren says. "They do this partly as a shortcut to move the conversation away from death, or to focus on assuring the child, assuming they can't cope with death." To avoid leaving questions unaddressed, Dr. Rosengren and Dr. Kirsch both recommend parents probe a bit in order to be crystal clear about what their child is trying to learn.

Be direct

From that place, Dr. Kirsch advises, "It's helpful to be clear, direct, and concise so as not to confuse them. Avoid euphemisms, such as 'they're resting in peace,' 'they went away,' 'they're in the sky watching over you,' as this may inadvertently confuse children." For religious or spiritual families, those perspectives have a valuable place in the conversation; but the best place to start is the biological processes involved in death: the fact that death means a person stops breathing, eating, drinking, and yes, being with us. And if the relationship between sickness and death comes up, Dr. Kirsch says it's best to emphasize that you have to be "really, really, really sick" to die.

"Don't over-explain or offer too much information at a time," she cautions, recommending instead that parents turn to whatever experiences they have at hand. "You can use opportunities such as a plant, mosquito, or a character in a book or movie that has died to explain the concept that all living things eventually die."

Normalize their reactions

Kids' reactions to these conversations will of course vary. According to Dr. Rosengren, fear is actually an unusual response, but validation should still be a priority. "It's very important to normalize whatever feeling they may be having," says Dr. Kirsch, "keeping in mind that it's perfectly OK if they don't seem to have any feeling about it. If you notice that they seem anxious or sad, let them know that most people feel this way when thinking about this topic and that they can always come to you for a hug and reassurance when they feel this way."

Be OK with not knowing all the answers

And when you don't know what to say, be honest. "It is fine, and I would argue beneficial, for parents (and college professors!) to admit that they don't know everything," Dr. Rosengren says.

That can also be a good time to ask questions, too. "Ask the child what they think, but then follow-up their response with some questions of your own and use these to guide the child's exploration in useful ways," adds Dr. Rosengren. "These questions are great opportunities for parents to connect with children and stimulate their curiosity."

The Bottom Line

If you're like me, you're not always going to get it right. That question James had, about whether it would hurt when he died? In the moment, I just said, "no"—when dying famously hurts for many, many people. Thankfully, these initial questions were only the beginning of a long, ongoing conversation. As my wife reminded me after that first bedtime talk, his asking me meant he feels safe with me in the first place, and that intangible assurance is more important than having the correct answers all the time. But now, when he comes back with bigger, perhaps harder questions—and I know he almost certainly will—I can feel little more prepared, ready to be there for him along the way.

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