Talking to Children About Death

[Image description: A large fern leaf. One side the leaflets are brown and dry. On the other they are green and full. The brown is creeping into the green as it crosses the center stem.]

We have always been honest with our oldest about death. Every animal we’ve had share our home with us that has died has been mourned and honored. And I have made a very specific point to show her (or offer to show her) the lifeless bodies of them once they have passed. It’s not a frightening thing, but an important piece of living. Without death there is no life. 

I frequently hear parents wondering about how to talk about death with their kids and how early they should start those conversations. But this shows such a remove from life. A distance created between two when they’re so inextricably linked. Talking about death does not preserve our children’s innocence, it denies them the ability to be fully alive.

“But they won’t understand it or grasp it fully,” these parents cry when you say to just explain it in a matter of fact way and to share what emotions come up for you around the death you’re sharing. To that I say, there are plenty of things children experience that they won’t fully understand for years or decades or lifetimes, but we don’t stop them from having those experiences. Relationships beginning and ending, changes in living situations, parental job changes, even births of siblings. These are all deep experiences that children don’t fully grasp. 

Time is a funny thing. Humans are limited to perceiving it as moving in a linear fashion and only being able to be present in one moment. But I think that ties in with the importance of the cycle of life and death. We are only able to appreciate the current moment, so we should celebrate it and be present in it. 

Why is this revolutionary? Well, it’s kind of not. Not so long ago death was not something that was so sterile and removed from everyday life. And death has always been a part of many cultural practices. But somewhere along the way we were sold the idea that death happens in a hospital and is something to be hidden, especially from children. And I think this carries over into us speaking to our (white) children about the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. If we can’t talk to them about our dog dying, how can we possibly talk about Stephon Clark or Breonna Taylor? I’m not saying kids need the specifics in those cases, but they do need to be able to understand the significance of death and that conversation starts when they’re two and their first goldfish dies.  

I’m working really hard for myself and my kids to not live in fear. I think that’s the biggest factor in what holds so many of us back from doing the right thing and really living revolutionary lives and for us that includes being open and accepting of death. 

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