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This question specifically addresses how to talk to a 5 year old, but I'm curious about younger kids.

I'm not talking about situations where death has become an important event in a child's life and something must be said (like the death of a parent or close relative).

But my toddler occasionally gets into a conversation where I can probably escape the topic, but the only honest answer involves death:

Where's your grandpa, mommy?

or

How come we never visit Uncle David?

So, my question is this:

Are there recommended ages before which the idea of death (or levels of it - animals, people in abstract, people you know, etc.) should be avoided?

Obviously, all kids are different in their intellectual and emotional progress, but I'm trying to get a sense for what average ages, if any, are appropriate for different levels of discussion.

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4 Answers 4

It wasn't so long ago that pretty much everyone was faced with the death of someone they knew by the time they were five.

There will be dead pets, friends will have pets that die, friends will have grandmas and grandpas that die. I'd say discuss it whenever it comes up in a way appropriate to how it came up. Why wait until an unsettling event happens, and you have to deal with the event and the unsettled child?

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+1 - Clear on the advice to handle it when it comes up, and that I should actually probably be happy it's before it might come with an emotional wrapper for the child. Elaboration question - would you hold back on any aspect, or answer any questions that follow regardless of age ("Do all people die?" "Will I die" "Etc.")? –  Jaydles Mar 7 at 16:02
    
Well, that isn't an question that has a clear answer. So much depends on the family structure and religion. Favorite grandma who has lived with the child all his life is different from a goldfish, belief in an afterlife or not, you just have to do what seems right at the time, and not beat yourself up over mistakes you couldn't have known were mistakes. For my part, I tried to never lie to my kids. That's not the same thing as pushing uncomfortable truths, but isn't redirecting the conversation away from them a bit like lying? –  Marc Mar 7 at 18:56
    
For what it's worth, we got "The Fall or Freddie the Leaf" for our daughters when were facing the impending death of a loved one. I think it helped us decide how to approch it more than it helped the girls. –  Marc Mar 7 at 18:58

My four year old has an unusually strong attachment to her great grandfather -- her mother's grandpa. I call it unusual because she never met the man. Nor did I. He passed away several years before her mother and I ever met. Yet she hears stories about him from her mother, and specifically asked "Nana" for a picture of her "great-grandfather who has wings now."

Her mother dutifully explained that great-grandpa lives in Heaven, and he has wings now. My daughter asked if she missed him, and she responded "Yes, I miss him very much," to which my daughter asked why she doesn't go see him? "Heaven is very far away," she replied, to which my daughter heart-wrenchingly replied matter-of-factly

That's okay Mommy, you can go to Heaven and see him if you miss him. Daddy will
take good care of me while you're gone!

She doesn't understand -- as no child would understand when using such soft language. Months later, when she was looking at a picture of great-grandpa and great-grandma, she turned to me (her mother was at work) and asked if I could tell her a story about them. I told her "I'm sorry honey, I never met your great-grandparents before they died."

"THEY DIED?!" she screeched at the top of her lungs and bawled for an hour. She was inconsolable. She knew he was in heaven, and had his wings, and that he was very old, but no one had ever told her that these things meant that he was dead. She understood death as a concept (if perhaps not as a permanent state -- "permanency" remains a difficult concept to grasp for children), but had no reason to equate the two.

She was sniffley about it for a week, and I finally confronted her as she was abnormally quiet. I pulled her in close and asked her to tell me what was making her so sad lately. She told me:

I'm worried about what will happen when I die, daddy.

I told her she didn't have to worry about that for a long long long time, and that great-grandpa was MUCH older even than mommy and daddy and even than "Nana" and "Papa" are when they died. She sniffled a little and confessed "But my toys will be so sad when I die and leave them all alone!"

Conclusion:

Death is a natural thing. It WILL happen to someone your child is close to. If not a family member, then a friend of the family, a pet, or even a favorite character from a book or TV show. Kids are capable of handling this. Don't be afraid to have a frank discussion with your child, even if it's difficult to explain the details. At the end of the day, your job as a parent is to prepare your child for the hard things they'll have to face, and one of those things is the death of a loved one. I can't imagine a reason to let them get hit by the truck rather than teaching them what may be coming down the road.

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+1 for the touching story. Thanks for sharing. –  shortstheory Mar 10 at 11:03

We never skirted around the concept or avoided discussions. Kids tend to be very matter of fact about these things precisely because they don't know what they mean. If you don't see Uncle David because he lives in India now, nobody will go on to say "does everyone move to India some day?" That question only comes from actual understanding of what living and dying are. Once they're old enough to ask that, they need true answers. But you can hide behind "usually" and "normally" for a while longer. "Yes, everyone does die eventually, usually when they are very old, like [aged relative who died recently.]"

I did find it helped, with preschoolers, to say "he died" rather than "he is dead." I think it's hard for small ones to deal with permanent states, like "he is black" and more mutable ones, like "he is in a bad mood" with the same grammar. So using verbs whenever possible seems to make things clearer for them. And of course avoid euphemisms like "passed on", "went over", or "lives with Jesus now."

One of my kids had a hamster that died (this is an actual feature of hamsters, they are very short-lived) and was very very upset. In the middle of all the crying out came this bit of meta observation: "If I'm this upset about [the hamster] what will it be like when - " and the sentence couldn't even be finished, it was so upsetting. (At that point they still had all their grandparents, and they have lost three in the years since.) But accepting that you will never see your hamster again, and observing that life eventually returns to a new hamsterless normal does make it slightly less bleak and awful in the early days after you lose a person. You know this is something that happens, and changes you, but that you will be yourself again after a while.

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I saw a book that suggested we tell kids that people die when they are "very very very very old", because to a young kid, older siblings are "old" and parents are "very old". –  Tanner Swett Mar 9 at 18:17
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Conversation with my 4 yo girl... "Dad, how old are you?" "39" "Then you're almost dead!!" –  RemcoGerlich Mar 10 at 12:34
    
+1 for the advice and for the hamsterless state ! –  woliveirajr Mar 10 at 13:14
    
@RemcoGerlich, your daughter is a cruel, thoughtless young woman. Yours, A Representative of All 38-Year-Olds. –  Jaydles Mar 10 at 15:11

Technically about the age of 9-10, but that - as always - depends on the kid. But sometimes you are faced with it and can't avoid it.

In general ignoring the concept of death is a protective mechanism so kids don't think about their greatest horror: the death of their parents. When faced with death, it is ok to tell them what happened and to mention that this is something normal (and peaceful) that everyone eventually faces. But always include that you, as parents, of course won't die for a long long time, as if it was something you are able to choose to do at a moment where everything is done. You basically promise them to not die.

When faced with traumatic situations like the death of one of the parents or a very close friend, kids tend to try to protect others (parents, friends) from death and can get really crazy about this. In some really traumatic cases psychological help is needed, in others the protective ignorance kicks in and they get over it.

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It seems to me that it would be remarkable and rare to make it to 9 or 10 without a single close relative, friend, or pet dying by that point. I wouldn't want a close tragic event to be the very first time we discussed these issues, gotten a handle on the concepts, and had the emotional tools to deal with it. –  lgritz Mar 11 at 19:24

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