When and how do you discuss the topic of death with kids? I’m currently reading a great book called Just Tell Me What to Say by Betsy Brown Braun. Just like the subtitle promises, she discusses “sensible tips and scripts for perplexed parents. I highly recommend this book and big huge “Thanks!” to my friend, T, who told me about it.
The chapter about death is titled, “Why Is My Goldfish Floating in the Toilet?” She reports that children develop a framework for understanding death around age two, or sometimes earlier, and she suggests that you start discussing death in a factual manner when you come across it in everyday context. For example, before sweeping a dead fly from the windowsill, or dead worms off the sidewalk show your child and discuss the lifecycle:
Everything that is alive has a lifecycle: first it is little; then it grows up; then it begins to get old; then it is all done living and it dies. Dying is what happens at the very, very end of the lifecycle. Whether it is a plant or an animal or an insect or a person, it has a lifecycle.
She stresses the importance of using the words death, die, dying, dead instead of euphemisms like “passed away” etc. She also addresses how to talk about accidental death, questions about what happens at death, untimely deaths of children, attending funerals, and offering condolences.
I had just finished this chapter when an opportunity presented itself with Jenna. A four year-old friend was visiting and both girls were playing outside. Jenna loves bugs and loves to look at them with her “mirror-glass” (what she calls her magnifying glass). Jenna was closely examining an ant when Little Friend came up and stomped it flat. Jenna’s mouth fell open and she was briefly frozen in shock. She then turned to me and said, “What happened, Mommy?” I calmly explained that Little Friend stomped on the bug and that now it was dead and couldn’t move anymore. I waited for her response or further questions. I could see her seriously thinking about it for a few moments, then she suddenly jumped up and exclaimed, “Find another bug!” and continued on her way.
Love that optimism. Hope she never loses it. Thanks Betsy Brown Braun! I’ll be watching for more opportunities for discussion in the future.