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March 26, 2015

Talking with my 3-year-old about death

Reflections on love, grief and stories that matter

Grieving File Art /for PhillyVoice

Children can often tell if we are hiding something from them. If we are unable to speak openly about death, it can increase their sense of being unsafe.

Walking outside, my 3-year-old son Taber notices a dedication plaque placed next to a tree. “Mommy, what do the letters say?”

A father had planted the tree in honor of his deceased son. I read the short dedication aloud.

“The son died?” Taber looks at me.


He knows that spiders, lizards and bugs die. But sons? He pauses. Then he points to his heart, and to my heart.

“You and me Mommy, we die too?”

He asks with such tenderness. Now it was my turn to pause.

“Yes,” I reply.

I look kindly into his eyes and explain how all that is born, dies. I share my belief that the love and truth within us never die.

“Because of this love, we will always be able to find each other, even when our bodies stop working,” I tell him, holding him close. 

Age-appropriate dialogue

Our children trust us; at least they are born trusting us. As infants, they come into this world trusting us to meet every physical and emotional need. As children develop, their sense of independence begins to unfold. However, the need to trust us remains. In particular, children trust us to speak honestly, openly and kindly about the world. When it comes to speaking about death, this isn’t easy.

Our love for our children is deep, instinctual and pervasive. We want to protect them from danger, and death is seen as the most permanent and terrifying danger. Throughout time, parents have given their lives to protect their children. We do so much to push death far, far away that, unfortunately, we forget that talking about death is actually very important.

Children pick up on much more than we know. Children can often tell if we are hiding something from them. If we are unable to speak openly about this topic, it can increase their sense of being unsafe.

Death itself isn’t inherently a taboo subject. However, because our culture’s current experience of death is so institutionalized and removed from the home, many of us lack the direct experience of being witness to a peaceful and natural dying process. Instead, our visions of death are either hyperviolent, as depicted in popular media, or very medicalized. Consider that most Americans die in hospitals hooked up to machines. Given our fractured experience, talking openly and calmly about death with our children can be fraught with difficulty.

It’s easy for parents to want to change the language around death, especially with little children. Often, parents avoid using the word “death” itself. Sometimes, parents say things like: “Grandpa went to sleep and didn’t wake up.” This isn’t very helpful. It can actually backfire, resulting in a child who is afraid to go to sleep for fear of not waking up. 

It’s important to use the term “death” and model a mature acceptance and understanding about this fact of life. Even very young children can comprehend certain facts about death. For example, children in the preschool years do understand contrast. They understand there are different colors, that there is an up and there is a down. There is also birth and there is death. It’s important to talk about death with preschoolers using simple and concrete examples. “Grandpa’s body doesn’t move anymore. Grandpa died.” 

The understanding of death evolves as children move through developmental stages. By the time children are in middle school, they are able to more fully understand that death is irreversible. They also are beginning to understand the personal dimension that death will one day apply to them. When preteens begin to grasp the fact that there is an irreversible end to their own physical existence, it can bring up a great deal of deep, philosophical questions. To the extent that we as parents have explored this topic, we will be able to make room for our children to explore. It’s important for us to embrace our journey of coming to peace with our own mortality and the significance we give to death. Why? Our comfort level with this topic transfers to our children. This is particularly apparent when death hits home.

When Children Grieve 

One of the most difficult experiences I’ve had as a hospital chaplain involved holding space for the heart-wrenching grief of a 10-year-old boy.

The boy’s mother lies in front of him brain-dead. He stands on one side of the bed; I stand on the other. Ten days after giving birth to his newborn brother, an unexpectedly released blood clot traveled to the mother’s brain and killed her. I gather with the family around her body. I pray with them. I listen. I do my best to be a compassionate witness to this profound and shocking trauma. The 10-year-old boy’s face is contorted, tear-stricken. Grief breaks him open as he encounters an unimaginable loss. He looks at his mother’s motionless form. His loud, sobbing cries wrack his body.

I so want to take his pain away.

I watch the boy and my eyes fill with tears. I choose to hold space as he journeys with the pain and gently make room for its expression. 

According to the National Alliance for Grieving Children, children are too often “the forgotten mourners.” The topic of death is routinely ignored in their presence. Sometimes, they are even kept at home and are not allowed to go to the funeral. They can be talked over. Parents talk around them. It can be very scary for a child to be left alone with his grief. Yet, grieving freely offers healing balm, even for children.

It may seem paradoxical, but it is only through the expression of grief that pain slowly integrates. The body needs to grieve. By feeling the pain of his mother’s unexpected and early death, the boy described above can begin the journey of making sense of, and moving through, his deep loss. 

Rather than trying to cheer up a bereaved child or shield her from the word “death,” allow her to feel the energies of sadness, anger and loss. After all, these energies arise naturally when we lose loved ones. It is our role as parents to support our children by being honest about the seasons of life and holding space for them to grieve. Children need to know that the sadness they feel won’t last forever and that by feeling it, we make room for happier feelings to come again.

Grief unexpressed remains in a child’s system and can manifest in troubling ways. Six months after a loss, notice if a child is experiencing a major shift in her sleep patterns or demonstrating signs of depression. These behaviors can signify that grieving work is needed. If a child has many angry outbursts or a hard time concentrating months after a death, it’s important to seek out professional help. Much of this can be avoided by simply making space for children to feel. To deny this to a child is unfair. Children have the right to grieve.

If parents are in need of support with regard to their own grieving, it’s important to turn to other adults, not children. Yet, a child benefits from seeing adults grieve and feel loss. There are seasons to grief, and it’s important to let children see how the adults they trust open their hearts to this reality. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we laugh out of nervousness. Sometimes we may mope around. Certainly, in the grieving process, anger can arise, followed by understanding and release. Just like the leaves go through the seasons of spring, summer and fall, it’s important to allow the seasons of grief to be.

Stories Matter

“The things that matter are built of stories, not stones.”

- Gershom Gorenberg

One day, a singular stone will bear an engraving of my name, along with two dates. “Amy Wright Glenn,” the stone will read. One day, beloved ones will visit this marking place. What matters as they look at my future gravestone? What matters for any of us when we remember the departed?

Love. Service. Kindness. Stories. 

In their book, “Gifts of the Spirit: Living the Wisdom of the Great Religious Traditions,” authors Philip Zaleski and Paul Kaufman write: “Copulation, like death, belongs to all animals; but weddings, like funerals, belong to us alone.” Due to our unique human expression in this world, we are able to construct patterns of meaning and rituals of significance around the basic and unavoidable fact that we -- like all living things -- die. We are able to tell stories that matter.

For many of us, the stories about death that we share with children connect to spiritual or religious teachings. Most religious traditions emphasize that something within us is not touched by physical death. For example, the state of nirvana is defined in Buddhist scripture as “birthless and deathless.” 

As a young Mormon girl, I was taught that we are immortal spirits living in mortal bodies. I clearly remember one particular Sunday school lesson. I was 6 years old and my teacher gathered us in a circle. She put a glove on her hand.  

“What is moving?” she asked our rather rambunctious class.

“Your glove!” shouted a boy named Travis.

She took off the glove. 

“OK, can the glove move now?”


“So, what moves the glove?”

The simple demonstration impacted my young mind. The lesson was clear. I move the “glove” of my body. When the glove stops moving; the hand doesn’t. When my body dies, I don’t. Therefore, death isn’t something to fear.

For families coming from religious traditions, such stories can be very meaningful for children. Yet, I wouldn’t suggest making them up. Parents simply need to share the worldview that brings them authentic peace. Many humanist or atheist and/or agnostic parents find peace in acknowledging the finality of our human experience. Children pick up on the peaceful, or anxious, feelings behind our words; they matter more than the details shared. After all, it’s the emotion of a story that carries the impact.

Regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation, memories transcend death. This can bring a very deep comfort. We carry our loved ones with us in the stories we share.

It can be very healing to sit with a child and show him treasured images of loved ones who are dying or dead. Each photo comes with a story. Through the telling of stories, precious memories live on. Even the photos themselves can offer healing balm. A recent study done at the University of Exeter reveals that feelings of threat or fear diminish by simply looking at photos of human beings being loved and cared for. You don’t even have to know the people in the photos. Just looking at photos displaying human kindness diminishes the sense of fear or threat.

My son Taber and I continue our conversations about life and death. We recently came across old possum bones in a nearby forest and buried our first betta fish, “Blue,” by an oak tree in our front yard. I’m humbly aware that the stories I weave together around these events construct a framework of meaning that Taber will draw upon as he begins his own human task of interpretation. 

Maybe in another dimension there are beings that don’t experience death. I don’t know. But on this planet, in our world, there are chaos, war and death. There are also joy, beauty, wonder and great love. It’s all here. Certainly, we should shield our children from physical danger, just as we should shield our children from psychological harm and abuse. However, it’s not abusive to talk about death. On the contrary, it’s imperative that we speak kindly, openly and honestly about the irrevocable reality characterizing mortal existence. 

May we hold loving space for such conversations, for it is our love that matters most in the end.

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