Your little preschooler is full of interesting thoughts and observations…including wondering about death. Why do little kids have so many questions about death? And what is the best way for us to respond? 

What to Say When Your Child Asks About Death

First, show your respect by complimenting your child for their thoughtful curiosity. For example: “Hmmm…very interesting. I can see you’ve been thinking a bit about this.”

Next, offer an opportunity to express any thoughts that might be just below the surface of their original question. Something like: “Sweetie, you have eagle eyes and are super good at paying attention and you notice a lot of things. Did you see something that made you start thinking about dying? Maybe you saw a picture or you heard people talking?”

Why Kids Talk About Death

It may be unsettling to hear your preschooler talking about death but it’s developmentally normal. At this age, they’re obsessed with the “whys” of the world. They’re trying to make sense of everything in the world around them…including death. They may have seen a character die in a movie or overheard a discussion about an elderly relative. They may even pick up on our reluctance to discuss death…which makes them even more curious…and worried.

Your young child lives in a magical world. He thinks everything has a purpose and that adults have special powers. Even if kids have heard about death, they usually think it is something temporary and reversible.

If your child asks you if you will die, you shouldn’t lie, but rather calm his fears by saying something like: “I am going to stay very, very healthy…and eat good food and get sleep and exercise and I will be with you for a long, long, long, LONG time…so long that you will say ‘leave me alone, Mom, I want to do a couple of things on my own without your help!” Take this as an opportunity to talk about living a healthy life.

How to Handle the Death of a Loved One

When discussing death, euphemisms like saying someone “passed away” or “we lost” someone may lead to misunderstandings. Instead, it is best to use simple, straightforward language.

When a child experiences a death, whether a relative or a pet, it helps them if you take steps to memorialize the deceased with a tribute scrapbook or keepsake box. This will give children something concrete to do with their grief and their questions. It also makes for a way to always remember and feel like the deceased is still present.

It’s also helpful to point out to young kids how the flowers and trees around them exemplify the simple truth of death and rebirth. Pointing that out can help them feel more at ease with the normality of death and the replenishment of life.  You might say, “Death is really interesting and even grownups are still figuring it out. But we know a lot of stuff about it. For example, look at the flowers or the leaves on trees. They die every year…and then come back again, fresh and beautiful. Leaves fall to the ground and then become broken and wet and become the ground again and feed the trees to help them grow and make new leaves. We are part of things that are always around us forever and ever…we breathe air that was always there and drink water that goes through our bodies…then out…then into the ground and the oceans which becomes clouds and rain and is used over and over again. Some people think that’s what happens to us when we die.”

If your religious beliefs include an afterlife, you can include that in your explanation but keep it simple. If someone dies, you can say “they’ve died and they’re in heaven now.” Again, avoid confusing euphemisms like “they’re at peace” or “they’re resting.”

Although this can be a challenging conversation for all of us, children’s interest in death is completely normal and the best thing is always to be honest, but simple (because none of us have fully unraveled the mysteries about life and death) and reassure your child to keep the lines of communication open.

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