Motherhood

How to Talk to Kids About Death

As I’ve mentioned, two of our close family members died this winter, and we had to figure out how to tell four-year-old Toby. Here are 10 things we learned…

1. Put your child in a cozy spot, such as sitting in your lap or lying next to you in their bed. I would often rub Toby’s back or hold his hands while we talked.

2. Be very direct and specific about the way the person died. Say something specific like, “Grandma’s heart was so sick. After a while, it stopped working and she died. It didn’t hurt.” If you say she went to sleep, your child might get scared of going to bed. And if you simply say that she was sick, without any more details, your child might get terrified of anyone getting a cold or the flu.

3. Talk about the death a bit at a time. I’ve read that kids process information in bite-sized chunks. So I would say a few simple sentences and then wait while Toby thought about it, or even went off to play. Then, invariably, he would come back to me with questions.

4. Don’t be offended if your child asks offbeat or blunt questions. Toby would ask unexpected questions, such as “Can girls die?” or “But Uncle Nick didn’t die, right?” or “When will you and Daddy die?” I tried to answer his questions matter-of-factly, and I told him that we were all healthy, and we plan to be around for a long, long, long time. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “Let me think about that and get back to you,” and follow up later.

5. Be practical when explaining what death means. We aren’t religious, and I’m really curious about how people deal with these conversations within a religion. (Please share if you have an answer!) We chose instead to describe death in a practical way: “Uncle Scott died, which means he can’t talk, eat, walk or run anymore.” It felt a little strange to me to describe death that way, but Toby seemed to appreciate the literal description.

6. Explain that people are sad. When Alex’s brother died, I told Toby that Daddy was very sad and that we had to be very quiet and give him lots of hugs. Toby asked often about who was sad and would repeat things like, “Daddy is very sad because Uncle Scott died” or “Everyone was sad when Dilly died.” He seemed very interested in how the adults were reacting. We also talked about how we might help people feel better, like writing a card to Grandma or making cookies for Daddy.

7. Reassure the child that the death was not his fault. This seems like a no-brainer, but since young children think the world revolves around them, they might worry that they did something to cause it.

8. Understand that your child may want to talk about it over and over (and over). Toby got pretty fixated on the idea of death, and he’d bring it up once or twice a day (and still brings it up every few days). He would ask me the same questions over and over. He would repeat facts simply to have me confirm them. He told me that his beloved imaginary friend Dun Dun died. I tried to stay very open and accepting of all his questions so he could take his time and work through it. Little kids can’t grasp the permanence of death, so it takes a while to wrap their minds around everything.

9. Realize that your child might show emotion in different ways. I read that young children can react to death by regressing in toilet training, reverting to baby talk or getting nervous about going to school. For Toby, we found that he suddenly developed major separation anxiety. He still doesn’t want me to leave for work, he asks us every evening if we’re staying home or going to dinner, and he comes into our bed at night. We are trying to stick to a very predictable schedule so he feels safe and secure — and knows that we aren’t going anywhere.

10. Tell happy stories about the person who died. Toby often asks for stories and I tell him things like, “Remember Uncle Scott played Jingle Bells on his guitar for you last Christmas?” or “Scott loved Lisa very much and he wore a fancy suit to their wedding.” We also look through old photos together.

One thing I’ve noticed is that children can be a huge pick-me-up during sad times. One morning this winter, I was walking Toby to school and ran into an acquaintance who casually asked me how I was. I couldn’t help bursting into tears and she gave me a hug. As I was trying to pull myself together, Toby looked up and said, “Mama, why you have a tear ON YOUR NOSE??” It made me laugh out loud. You can’t always stay too deep in it when you have a little one who wants to play, laugh and see the world in such a sweet way.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful for anyone navigating a similar situation, and I would love to hear your advice and stories, too. If you’re religious, do you explain death in a different way? xoxo

  1. Joanna, I just came upon your blog and wish that I would have a little over a year ago when I lost my mother suddenly in a horse accident. I did not handle it in as calm or peaceful manner as you were able to because of the sudden shock of it.
    My then 17and 6 year old were hit with it just as I was.
    I’ve learned a lot about grief in the past year, and you are so right, my son’s questions and memories and sadness has also proven to be a blessing in my loss.
    I wouldn’t consider myself “religious”, but am a Christian with a strong relationship with Christ….that relationship is what has helped my family through our grief because we know beyond a doubt that we will see my mother again, that she is right this minute in heaven with Jesus. We talk a lot about heaven and I was given the book “Heaven” by Randt Alcorn which I have been able to condense and discuss with both of my kids and my father. We are of course sad but knowing that she is in a much better place, with Jesus and that we will see her again gives us all hope and peace.
    Bless you for sharing on this hard topic!

  2. at age 7 my dad took me to an hospital where one of his best friends died and from that moment on wards, i understood what death meant and thats why till this very moment at age 27, i am very much aware of what death really is. thanks a bunch for your tips

  3. Nana L says...

    Our darling 23 month old granddaughter died three years ago and her equally lovable younger brother is now asking questions about her. Thank you for your wise advice. It will be put to good use.

  4. Stacie says...

    Joanna,

    I just wanted to say thank you for sharing such a beautiful post on death and how to tell children, and I am so sorry for your losses. Also, thank you for having such a diverse and engaging blog. I read so many blogs out there that just don’t keep my attention for one reason or another (here is what I wore to the dentist, here is what my child wore to the dentist, etc…). I’m not saying that these blogs are bad in any way, shape, or form. I just can’t relate to them. Yours, however, is one I truly love and adore and find so many interesting and inspiring things that I can relate to in terms of fashion, everyday life (even though I work at a non-profit making 30K a year :), and motherhood (I am not a mother yet, but I one day plan to be and your site is one that I’ve found and keep coming back to!). Thank you so much! I just thought I’d mention how much I adore this site!

  5. Martha says...

    I was reminded of your post listening to last week’s episode of This American Life (if you haven’t already or if it hasn’t already been suggested, you should listen). More specifically, it’s the last act (maybe at 45:00 ish) of episode 557 Birds & Bees. The episode discusses things that are hard to talk about with kids, and the last one is death. There are some sad but insightful stories from grief counselors and therapists and it really relates to your post.

  6. i am very religious and believe that families are bound together forever. When a family member dies, we say “they are with Jesus” or “they are with God” we believe that their sprints are always with us guiding us and comforting us as our guardian angels. And the best part, what we take the most comfort in, is that we will see them again, death will not part us. I am so eternally grateful for my faith and that knowledge. I Will always be with my husband and my family. Death will not part us. And that is what gets us through losing a loved one. I am so so sorry for your loss and the hard time you are having you are in my prayers

  7. My heart aches for your family and the losses you have all endured. Please let your sister and husband know they are in my thoughts and I send them love and strength.

  8. In my Christian family death was explained to me as something that happens only to your physical body – your soul goes to heaven to be with Jesus. While we on Earth are sad for the loss of a loved one, they no longer feel pain, suffering, or sadness only the pure joy of God’s love in heaven where we will all someday be together again.

    Surprisingly, the concept of having a soul or spirit separate from your physical body wasn’t hard to understand as a kid. You could just feel it. Maybe more so than I can now as an adult.

  9. My 5 year old son is having a hard time dealing with the death of our dog. He didn’t seem upset immediately, but now two months later it seems to sink in and he bursts into tears. He has questions about her ashes, about where she is now, and he’s agonizing over the fact that he didn’t get a final goodbye hug with her before the vet came because he was at school. One way I found worked in terms of talking about what death is like is the difference between seeing a snail living in its shell, and then finding a discarded shell. The “thing” that made it alive is gone, but it leaves something like a body behind. He seemed to understand then what the ashes were, and that whatever made her “Lucy” went somewhere. I asked him where he thought she went and he said “to our star.” I cry just thinking about it.

  10. Hey Jo. Do you remember ages ago, I think it was in one of your Friday round ups, you shared the instagram account that used #Henrysconcepts and shared photos of a little boy and his babysitter doing the same poses all around town that he came up with? I’ve been following the account since then, and today, fittingly, she posted about explaining to Henry, who is now probably 4, about death after he asked about her horse who had passed away. His response is so sweet, I think you’ll really enjoy it.

    https://instagram.com/p/2EwnO8y3i5/?taken-by=wildeyed

    Sending love your way. xx

  11. Last year, when my daughter was 3, we had a friend die. The friend was just over 18 months, and we’d just seen her, so my daughter had trouble understanding. Even now she asks when we’ll hold the baby again. It’s such an abstract concept for little ones, which is hard to deal with when we’re already heartbroken. Good suggestions.

  12. I have a 4 year-old son, too. He has been asking about death a lot lately – I think it’s because he’s been learning about how the dinosaurs went extinct and they all died. We haven’t lost anyone in the family since my son’s birth, but my dad died before he was born. I want to talk to him about his grandfather, show him photos, tell him stories, etc. but I find it difficult to explain how someone he never met died – and I get emotional. He seems to understand, though. He knows he has his grandfather’s name as his middle name.

  13. thank you so much for all these comments! i’m poring over them! xo

  14. martha, i’m so sorry to hear about your loss. i can’t imagine how heartbreaking that must have been, and still be. you sound like a wonderful mother.

  15. We are not religious, but also wanted to give our daughter a sense of the unknown, the mystery and hope in life and death. When our newborn daughter passed away 4 months ago, we told our 3 year old in an open, honest way: she was sick and couldn’t stay here. she died. we told her that Zoe would always be her sister, and that she would have her in her heart, and that now Zoe was in the universe. She now speaks of Zoe in the universe all the time. She points to stars and says that is Zoe. She sees rainbows and says it’s Zoe saying hello. She clearly understands that she has died, but also feels connected with her. While it’s not the connection we hoped for, it is a beautiful one.

  16. What a wonderful post.
    I told my 4 years old boy that a person would turn into dirt and sand once he/she died. He then told me when I turn into sand, he would play and build things with Mommy sand. It sounds kind of freaky now that I typed it out, but it sounded quite poetic when he actually said it :).

  17. We are LDS (mormon). We would say all of the things you wrote about (they were awesome! Very helpful.) but we would add that we will see the deceased person again in heaven. We believe that our families can be together forever and after this mortal life everyone will live an eternal one in heaven with their families. When my husbands nana died and we went to the funeral we talked a lot about nana going to heaven to be with Pop (her husband) and how she was happy and safe there and didn’t have anymore pain.

  18. Aw poor little guy. He has been through a lot in his short life. Sounds like you’re doing the best you can. I hope you and Alex are doing alright. <3

  19. av says...

    I’m catholic. We see death as the transition to a new better life, the life on earth is just interlude before the “real” heaven life.
    I would say to a child: “mommy is in heaven, she’s a saint now, you can pray to her, she wathches and can always help you even if you don’t see her” ;)

  20. My three year old was really interested when we read the Easter story over and over this year (she’d ask for it several times a day). This led to more questions than she’s had before, although we’ve been very blessed not to have had any close deaths since she was born. When she asks about death though, or her or us dying, we talk about how Jesus conquered death and how since Jesus died and rose again we don’t have to stay dead. So we don’t have to be afraid and we will be with him, and all together again.

    Her great grandma was in the hospital/ER last week, and although everything is fine now, she was curious about that. My husband just told her, “Grandma’s heart is a little bit sick.”

  21. Thank you for a wonderful post. I have had quite a bit of experience, unfortunately, with this topic of explaining death of a loved one to a small child. I agree with all you have suggested here: be matter of fact, keep it simple, etc. We are religious, so our explanations include the idea that the our body is just a shell and that the “inside” part—the loving part—is called the soul and that part cannot die. Death is just the body ceasing to work. It isn’t needed anymore because the soul has left it to go to Heaven. I have been careful in talking about sickness so as not to create fears, as you mention, but also because I and several other close relatives are cancer survivors. So my kids know you can be very seriously sick and not die. I think being very truthful and matter-of-fact and answering their questions, however strange they might seem to us as adults, is the way to do it. We included a four year old child (did it twice, actually) in the funeral for his/her grandparent. The key to that was explaining ahead of time exactly what they would see, what other people would say, etc. “Grandpa’s body will be in a big box in the front of the church…” “Some people might cry because they are sad to know that they can’t be with Grandpa here any more.” I also agree with the idea that kids need pets, preferably pets with short life cycles, as a way to understand life cycles and the permanence of physical death. (I thought a pet rat was the perfect thing—if you can stand the thought of it!—because it grew, then aged and slowed down, then died in around one year. It was a wonderful experience for my son and when an uncle get sick and died shortly thereafter I know he was able to process that idea of death more easily.) One last thought: as my kids grew older we let them know that we had a plan and that if we died (which probably wouldn’t happen of course) exactly what would happen to them—the aunt and uncle who would take care of them were the ones whose children WE would look after if THEY died. I think that was reassuring.

  22. Hi Joanna,
    I’m so sorry for the losses your family has experienced.

    Your post really touched me and had me crying at my desk. We faced the same thing when our baby died and our eldest son was just shy of 3 years. The best advice I received at that time was from my Dad, who said to explain in concrete terms that our son could understand, and to give him an honest explanation that he could build on. That has served us well and we have built on the explanation as he has grown, been able to understand more and asked us more questions.

    Discussing death with your children is so heart-breaking, and can be hard because, as you say they ask for the same explanations over and over again. That said, I felt so blessed to have him with me at that dark time in my life because he was a source of sunshine in the awfulness.

    Thank you for the beautiful, honest post.

  23. Joanna, I’m sorry for what you and your family are going through. What a kind way to approach it all with Toby.

    I have a 3 and 5 year old and this past year (within a month) my Dad and our dog passed away. It was a tough month for my son, who couldn’t quite grasp. I was raised religious and still have faith, though don’t really practice, so I feel comfortable talking to him about how Grandpa got sick and God decided he was going to live in heaven. I think he felt better knowing that Grandpa and Mojo (our dog) were in Heaven together and Grandpa was throwing mojo his tennis ball…though his major question about that was “but what if grandpa throws it so far it falls out of heaven??” We also released ballons on my Dad’s birthday and the kids drew their names and hearts on them. He loved knowing that Grandpa would get it in the clouds and see his message.

    I hope you and your family find comfort and healing.

  24. I’m always stunned at how open and honest you are in this space – thank you dearly for being so generous with your life.
    Our daughter isn’t old enough to have any concept of death yet, but I can relate my experience of losing a sister when I was 10.
    She lost a long battle with cancer at age 5, and my parents were honest with us in those last months that she wasn’t going to get better, and that we were going home so she could die there, not in a hospital. My brother & I were at a friend’s when she passed, and when I called to see if we could stay longer, my dad said that she had died and that we should come home. We all sat together on the couch at home and cried together for what felt like hours, talking about how much we loved her, what we’d miss about her, and telling stories.
    Then, they related her final moments, telling us that her breathing was slow and light, that she had suddenly gripped my dad’s hand and said that she saw a man who wanted to hug her and that he was bright. My dad told her that was Jesus and that she shouldn’t be afraid of him, that he loved her very much and was bringing her to her new home. My parents repeated over and over that they loved her and that she was safe with Jesus as she passed away.
    They often told us that she was in a new, healthy body in heaven and that she was picking out curtains for our new home in heaven. It still gives me so much comfort to know that her life was not in vain, that it was only beginning and that she is whole.

  25. This was a really nice post. And timely. We used to live in Kathmandu and so we have been trying to talk to our kids (6 and 12) about the earthquake and death.

    It feels important that they understand what happened – especially since we haven’t been able to get in touch with some friends. But it feels equally important that we let them keep their memories of crazy chaotic magical Kathmandu (trying not to overdo pictures of collapsed buildings). But I’m not at all sure we are handling it right.

  26. This is amazing.
    My family and I are Christian. I remember when I was a kid and my great grandpa died, I was reminded that though I wouldn’t see him here, I would see him in heaven. And that he was no longer in any pain, he was no longer sick up there. It soothed the heartache

  27. My heart goes out to you, Jo. Like Moonlight, I am Orthodox Christian, and have come to find the memorial prayers offered in church most Sunday’s incredibly beautiful and comforting. As a Christian, you still miss the people who die before you terribly- I imagine the pain is the same, but you cannot despair when you know we will all be together again someday.

    My thoughts and prayers are with your family.

  28. This is a great post, Joanna! Death can be hard to deal with for little children and adults!
    I was brought up Catholic and my husband too, although he is an agnostic adult now. But, I think for kids, it is much more comforting to believe that our spirits or souls will reunite one day in heaven. Is what I tell my kids when they ask these questions at night before falling asleep. They feel comforted and reassured by the answer and that is all they need for now. That is what I hope as well so my goal is for them to feel reassured and untroubled by that.
    I liked what you said about telling them that we as parents will be here for a long time. That, I found, puts a smile on their face, and that answer is all they need and are looking for when they ask these questions.
    Alina
    http://www.eclecticalu.blogspot.com

  29. What wonderful, thoughtful advice for helping a little one (and yourself) when going through such a difficult time and such enormous feelings.

    As a Reception teacher (kidergarten in the UK) I found this book really helpful:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Badgers-Parting-Gifts-Susan-Varley/dp/1849395144

    Although it deals with an older person dying it’s a great conversation starter for talking about all kinds of deaths, and it explains death in a very honest, natural way without mentioning religion, but not precluding it either (good for talking to children of mixed faiths).

    Thanks so much for your post (I often read your blog but don’t often comment). I just wanted to say that how you’ve used your experience to share advice for others is truly inspirational.

  30. Thank you for sharing this, Joanna. My son is 5 and since 6 months he is talking a lot about death, corpses, skeletons, etc. Asking again and again the same things. Dinosaurs and Kung-fu Panda were of a big help! In the movie, an old kung-fu master dies and transforms himself in star dust or flower petals and flies to the stars. I found it really poetic to explain the idea of the soul “watching” or “protecting” us, the memories of the person remaining for ever like the stars (since I’m not religious). Dinosaurs help for the “body” dimension, although this could lead to weird discussion like ” do we eat dead bodies”? It is sometimes hard to discuss about it, but I try to keep it at the same level of interest and (no)passion than the 100 other questions we are confronted to each day ;-) Also, to compare the body to a car (needing oil or broken or being at revision) helped in case of a little boy. Thanks again

  31. Thanks for this post! I’m a religious person, but in my religion we don’t believe that a person’s soul separates from his/her body to go to heaven (or anywhere else) at death. So actually, your concrete explanation of death (can’t talk, walk, eat, etc. anymore) would work very well for our family. We would likely add some things specific to our beliefs about eschatology and heaven, as well as seeking comfort in God when we are sad. But I really appreciate the direct and concrete approach, as well as understanding that kids need to discuss the concept and situation many times i order to understand it. Thanks so much for this.

  32. I don’t have any children yet but I’m a nurse in a pediatric cancer ward so our approach is often from the standpoint of preparation of death versus reacting to it afterwards. Over the years I’ve been asked everything from “Am I going to die?” to “How will it feel when I do?”

    I approach each on an individual basis depending on the child’s age, whether they’re the patient or family member and whether their family is religious or not. I’ve found that children who have grown up with a religious background like the idea of heaven and focus on that…what does it look like, who else is up there, can I take my toys, etc. I encourage parents to just go with it and follow the child’s lead. When they’re not religious, we tend to focus on the more physical aspects like you did with Toby.

    Obviously you didn’t ask how to explain their own potential death to a child, sorry :( It’s just more the world I’ve worked in and I find it’s pretty tricky and extra sensitive to navigate the conversation with the kids and their siblings, cousins, etc beforehand. Many parents don’t even want to think about it and sometimes tell us (the staff) to lie if any kids ask us anything. I think honesty, in a gentle, age and imagination appropriate way is the best direction to go. Thanks for taking on this topic in such a approachable way!

  33. This is such a sweet and thoughtful post. I’m very sorry for all your family had to go through lately.. it sounds awful. My grandpa died recently, and, though there’s 8 grandkids, no one had kids yet when that happened. I kept thinking how having a few babies around would have made those few days just a little bit less sad for everyone, including my grandma. When my partner’s grandpa died, there were at least five great grandbabies running and crawling about, and it was such a bittersweet comfort to everyone.

    Also, another thing stuck out in your post, to me at least: My partner and I are not religious either. I am pregnant now, and I’ve started thinking a lot about these questions – not necessarily as related to death, but in general. How do I explain religion to my kid so that they can make up their own mind later on, so to speak? It is especially hard since it will be raised in a country quite attached to its own religion, to the point of having obligatory prayers and church visits at school – which is not something I’d like my kid to be a part of. But I’ll need to explain, and I;ve been tryin to think of how. It is a very private question, but it might be helpful if you gathered some thoughts in a post – if you don’t think it too intimate….

  34. Great topic. When my brother was stillborn, I was 3 years old. My mom got me the book “Freddy the Leaf,” which in later years I learned to appreciate as a children’s book about death that focuses on death’s role in the natural flow of life, and also focuses on respecting the wisdom of elders. It’s a sweet book. In retrospect, I think my mom got it as much for herself as she did for me.

  35. Hi Joanna,
    Thanks for sharing honestly on your blog about these times of suffering you have experienced lately. The writings of your brother–in-law, Paul, were extremely touching.

    As a Catholic, we talk about death as a time of great sorrow and suffering; it is NOT natural, because we believe that we were not made to die but rather for eternal life – and death can be a way of helping to understand this, because when we lose someone who was so dear, so vivid and so alive, it makes sense to think, “Surely they weren’t only meant to exist for 40, or 80 years – there is something too incredible about them, and about each person, for their life to be so finite.”. So death is a time to understand more clearly that we weren’t really made for a finite existence, but that because of the reality of evil in our world, there has been a rupture between what we have been made for, and the broken state of things. Through faith in Christ and the mercy of God, we have hope in eternal life, and trust in the promise of heaven … and yet that doesn’t deny the great wrong that death seems to be, in fact it confirms it.

    I really find this helps me, not just the children, in processing but also being allowed to properly grieve.

    Hope this helps a little bit. God bless you.

  36. When my Dad died my son was only 5. I bought the book “Waterbugs and Dragonflies.” I bought it to help him understand but I think it helped me more. I am religious but the concept of an afterlife is so hard to grasp. This book explains in a beautiful way how we can’t really know what happens to us when we die until it is our turn but we can be assured that it is something wonderful.

  37. Joanna, I’m so sorry for your loss. Know that you and your family are in my thoughts.

    I don’t have kids, but my sister-in-law’s father passed away in January, and my brother had to explain the death to his kids (3 and 5). Our family isn’t religious, so his conversations were fairly matter-of-fact, but the kids seemed to appreciate the literal explanation.

    My niece (who is 5) was especially close with her grandfather, and was very upset. She was scared that he was “all gone”, but my brother made sure to talk about how even though Papi wasn’t around anymore, we still remembered him. My niece started to make sure to tell stories about him, request his favorite foods and songs, repeat jokes that he made, and show off things he had taught her. She has also been bragging about her Papi to all her friends and keeps a picture of him next to her bed.

    I think the idea that we will always love family members who’ve passed away, and will always have the memories of the time we spent with them and the things they taught us, is very comforting. For someone who doesn’t necessarily believe that a loved one who’s passed away “is looking down on them” or “will see them later in Heaven”, it’s a way to feel like a person you love will never really be gone.

    I truly admire the way in which you talk to your children. Learning about death is a scary thing, and Toby and Anton are fortunate to have parents who are so loving, caring, and open. You seem to be incredibly in-tune with their needs and eager to help them understand the world around them. I hope that I will be as good of a mother when I have kids.

  38. I can’t imagine dealing with death without the lense of faith. We tell our kids that ultimately, our lives, every moment, belong to God, and we will go to heaven to be with Jesus when we die. People and their lives are so incredibly important and precious, not just in their time on earth, but in an eternal sense. Do I struggle with doubts in my faith? The honest answer is yes. But I do cling to my relationship with a God who is so much bigger than I am. Many days it feels more like an act of will and a decision than a feeling. But every moment of my life, I do entrust to God. Everything pretty much flows from that.

    Joanna, I’m a longtime reader of your blog. I’m so very sorry for your family’s losses.

  39. We’ve had A LOT of death in our family. My son is an only child and a sensitive soul at that. We too are not religious but we are spiritual. When Max was only nine he lost his Grandmother to cancer. A long and drawn out process that he witnessed and processed from (what we deemed at that time) a “safe” distance. When the day of the funeral arrived he stunned us all by asking to see her in the coffin. I believe with all my heart that death is a natural, albeit sad, link in the circle of life. My husband and I decided to allow him the viewing and when he walked up to the coffin we were blown away by his reaction … Smiling from ear to ear he stared at her for a wee while and then turned to us and said “thanks but that’s not Granmda Sylvia – that’s just what’s leftover”
    Thank you for sharing Jo – these topics are real but that can be hairy ones too!
    Light & love. Xx

  40. I’m so sorry for your losses. I appreciate this post. My brother-in-law killed himself a little over a year ago, and it was difficult to explain to my 4-year-old. We left out the suicide part. We said his body stopped working. When we said he went to heaven with Jesus, that only confused her more. She didn’t understand why Jesus wouldn’t let Uncle Mike visit, or why we couldn’t take a plane to see him. With a do-over I would’ve left the religion out of it. I read that children can’t conceptualize death until age 8. Your advice is helpful.

  41. When my grandfather died of a long illness (ALS) it was important to do many of the things you mentioned with our 3 1/2 yr old – explaining that he died of ALS and that his body stopped working. We are religious so we took it one step further and told him that “we believe that we will see him again in heaven”. My grandfather was cremated and at the family gathering the ashes were there with us. My son brought up some interesting questions (how does his body fit in there?) but he also thought it was totally normal to have a loved one with you and would often ask if he was still at home with my grandmother. Soon after the funeral the family attended a wedding and my son insisted that photos of my grandfather be there too so he could be with us. Most of the time he seems good with the answers and reasons but every once in a while he will ask with big eyes “if the dog will die?” and it hits him. Children and their honesty and love for life are such a blessing in life’s hardest moments and it sounds like you handled such a difficult situation with a much grace and compassion as possible.

  42. Joanna, thank you so much for this post. I am sharing it with my husband and we’ll be sure to remember it when our little one (who is only a baby now) someday needs our guidance through a loved one’s loss.

  43. Oh gosh, reading this post has made my heart ache and eyes tear. In a good way. I thank you for allowing me to shed a bit of deep and forgotten grief. May blessings and light shine upon you and your loved ones. Peace.

  44. Joanna, I am so sorry for the immense amount of loss burdening your family. It’s lovely to see a mama willing to take on the pain of helping your children through the grief process as well…how blessed Toby and Anton are to have you!

    Last year, both of my grandfathers died within a few weeks of each other. One of them lived only a few minutes from us and my daughters (5 and 7 years old at the time) were very close to him. As hard as it was, I found it so helpful for all of us to treat them as adults and have them present for all of the funeral and memorial events. We talked plainly and often with Ella and Scarlett about what death meant and how it was good to be sad because it expressed the love we felt. I think they so appreciated being included in the process…they felt validated in their sadness and confusion, and felt empowered by being able to comfort their family members. I’ll never forget my oldest slipping a note into my pocket with a heart and “bob” (my grandfather’s name) on it. She said it was so that I could carry his name with me to remember him forever.

    It’s been a year now, and both girls still bring up their grandfathers at totally random times. It’s always a bit shocking and sad when this happens, but ultimately so comforting to know that, even at their young ages, they can hold on to their love and memories.

    Our faith is undoubtedly what has held us together through the pain. Knowing that our Creator planned our lives (“You (God)saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” Psalm 139:16) gives us a firm foundation on which to place our trust in God’s timing in our lives. We share this with our kids over and over and pray that they, too, will trust God’s timing for each part of their life and death, and we can be joyful knowing that we will be reunited in Heaven again.

    Thank you for sharing such raw and difficult pieces of life with us. It is such a gift to walk though it all together!

  45. So sorry for your family’s losses. We are religious and when our friends’ baby daughter died this winter, my four year old was mystified but interested. We explained that when we die, our spirit and body separate. Our spirit goes to the spirit world with spirits of deceased family members. Someday all our family will be together again and we will be resurrected as Jesus was. He liked to talk about it at bedtime and was fascinated that it made me cry. He liked to talk about how their family was sad now, but would be so happy to all be together again someday! Prayers and thoughts with you and your family as you continue to navigate this.
    http://www.mormon.org/faq/topic/death/question/life-after-death

  46. Joanna, thank you for another generous and kind post. And again, I am sorry you guys are going trought this. If its any consolation, It seems you guys are doing a great job at it. Keep going <3

    When my grandma died, my little cousin kept asking us if he could visit her. It seemed he wanted to make sure of what dying meant: “so I can´t to her, see her, call her, or write her?”. It was like explaining many times the rules of a game we were about to play. He kept checking to see if he would get the answers right. It was hard but his gentleness towards the subject made it soft for us somehow.

    About religion. My family member have different beliefs but everyone is confortable with praying, wich can be as simple as sending someone (dead or alive) good thoughts ans wishing them well. Its nice to imagine your loved ones someplace nice, doing fun things and away from the pain, sickness or whatever made them go. It doesn´t have to mean you believe in heaven or reincarnation or whatever…for me at least, its the simple act of imagining good things to give our body, heart and brain a break. And kids are so great at it!

    How is your sister and niece? And your mother in law? Please send them our love! xoxo Lais

  47. My sister’s husband died when my oldest daughter was three. I remember being anxious before telling her (she adored her uncle) and then being startled that she seemed to have very little reaction. But then, for about a full year afterward, she asked questions about her uncle at seemingly random times. Clearly, she was working it out in her own way. She was interested in particular in whether he could still eat and, if so, what he could eat :). It broke my heart a little bit each time she asked about him, but I also was grateful she was thinking it through and thinking of him.

  48. Lu says...

    As a Pagan, I explain death as a recycling of energy or “life force”. I often notice how breezes or waves, certain clouds or flower blossoms are whispers from our departed loved ones. It is a comfort to always “have them around”, so to speak.

  49. Your advice comes at a perfect time. My 12 hour old niece passed away this week from hypoplastic left heart syndrome (among other heart problems) and the funeral was yesterday. Reading your suggestions is helpful for adults trying to cope and grasp such a shock too!! Grief is hard for all ages – sending you warm hugs <3

  50. You made me remmember! I was four years old when my grandfather died, I was very close to him. We are not a very religious family, but everyone in Chile (my country) is race as a catholyc, even if you don’t go to church.
    So my parents told me that my “tata” died and went to heaven and that he was watching for me from heaven.
    I was sad because I wouldn’t see him anymore, but calm, because heaven was a nice place to be.
    Now I think that it would have been helpful to attend the funeral, wich they didn’t allow me to. It took me a while to really understand what dead mean, and later I regreted that didn’t have the chance to say goodby properly.
    It was helpful that my parents give me a camera and told me that my “tata” had left me that, it made me fell loved by him. And it was helpul to be able to pray to him, made me fell close to him every time I did.

  51. My father in law passed away 18months ago and I was so worried about how to explain to our 3 year old that his grandad had died. It turns out I needn’t have worried so much as we just explained how grandad had been very sick and what had happened and he was like, “okay”.
    He came back a little while later after thinking about it and said “You know mum and dad, I think Grandad drove his scooter up into the sky and is now a shooting star zooming along having fun and watching us” We told him that sounded like something Grandad would love to do and it fitted in with us believing in heaven and Grandads love of astrology so we just went with it!
    We still have him ask questions about Grandad and death every so often which we do our best to answer simply and honestly and he often takes his Daddy out to look at the stars to see if they can see Grandads shooting star which is really sweet.

  52. S. says...

    Again, I feel extremely sorry for you and your family. I cannot imagine how tough it must be on a family to go through this. I don’t have kids, but I remember the way my parents explained it to me. We’re Jewish, so my Dad would explain how at some point God would decide that it was time for you to be with him in heaven, so you would die and go there with Him. And that, we might miss the people who die now, but we’ll meet them again in heaven when God decides it’s our time to go.

  53. Thanks for sharing this. My daughter is still only a baby, but I can recall my parents talking very matter-of-factly about death when I was really young. They went on trips a lot and always explained what we would need to do in case they had an accident and didn’t make it back. Seems morbid but I’ve always appreciated this.
    I think about you and your family, especially your sister and Alex often and pray for you all. It’s sweet to know that kids can bring so much light to your day when things feel so dark.

  54. My youngest sister was six when our grandfather died in 2001. She knew nothing about the man other than he was our dad’s father and she saw him occasionally. It was hard for her to process that me (at 18) and my sister (who was 16) were distraught because we had grown up around him until we were seven and five-years old. She learned about him through stories we told, but she was so confused about the whole thing. She knew death meant he wasn’t coming back, but she didn’t know him well enough to mourn. Luckily, she had our other sister, who was nine, to share the same feelings since she was born after he had moved away.

  55. This is a very thoughtful and helpful post. Thank you and I am so sorry.

  56. I’m a long time reader and I think Toby is absolutely adorable. I love your posts about him and Anton. I appreciate the difficulty it must be in trying to explain something that seems to be based on faith if you are not a faith-based or religious family. I hope I can explain the difference in how our Christian family would deal with death versus what it means to be religious or having faith. Religion is believing in a set of rules to guide your life. Faith is believing in something or someone outside of your own abilities. You can have faith in things that ultimately will not do you any good whatsoever. You can be very diligent in religious practices and still miss out on having joy, peace and loving relationships. The difference for our family is that we look first to having personal relationships with God through His Son Jesus. We believe in God’s plan to redeem mankind from permanent separation from Him, what we consider to be spiritual death. We believe God created humanity as eternal beings and the body may die a physical death but the spirit will continue and that every person is valued by God. God offers a gift of life and companionship to all who accept the death, burial and resurrection that His Son Jesus freely gave the world. Rebellion against the natural order that God created, brought suffering, sickness and death into the world and without the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf, no one was, is, or will ever be good enough to pay the price for that rebellion. We believe that every person who has the cognitive ability gets a choice of accepting Jesus and where they will spend eternity, either with God or not. I truly don’t know how we would deal with the loss of precious family members and friends without an assurance that they have gone on to be with The Lord in Heaven. I have several family members who have died and whose confession was in the gift of eternal life through Jesus. That is a wonderful comfort to our family. We miss them very much but we have a peace that we will be reunited with them again one day. In my experience, children don’t need a fancy explanation, they seem to be very content and accepting of the simple gospel story that Jesus loves them and that by accepting Him they can go to be with Him when they die.

  57. As a child I was very close to my great-grandmother. She passed when I was four and I remember seeing my mom & aunt dab their eyes with tissues at the funeral so I asked for a tissue and started dabbing my eyes. No one really ever sat me down and explained it to me. They may have said she’s in heaven with Jesus, but that was about it. Then when I was 8-years-old I broke down in tears while looking out the car window at the stars at night – undoubtedly thinking of heaven and Maw Maw being there. When my parents asked what was wrong, I told them I missed Maw Maw. Of course, they tried not to laugh since it was so out of the blue. It’s like I had finally grasped the concept of death and that she wasn’t coming back.

  58. What a thoughtful post. I wanted to say again how sorry I am for all of the sadness your family went through this winter. It’s so easy to see all the light-hearted, fun things on the blog and forget that your life is as full of problems and frustrations and sorrows as everyone else’s. I hope you’re all finding peace. xoxo

  59. All such great ideas, especially the one about telling stories about the one who died. My mom died when I was five and I didn’t want to talk about her in front of my dad because I knew it made him sad (even though he would have loved to talk about her). I think making one of your photo books about each person with some of their favourite things, funny times etc. would be a great way to keep their memory alive.

  60. i’ve not had to explain death to a child yet, and i’m an atheist, but i think the fact that your loved ones live on in your memories and through the knowledge and love they shared with you when they were here on earth is really important. i was particularly close to my grandmother who passed long before she was able to meet her great grandson, my son. but preparing my child meals that my grandma used to make me and singing him songs that my grandma used to sing me are ways for us to be close to her even though she isn’t here anymore.

  61. JP says...

    Thank you for sharing your experience with your kid. It makes me tear up at the end of your post.

  62. I have a vivid memory from when I was about 5 years old (I’m now 30 and married, but no children yet). We had a favorite tree in our front yard, and there was this little hole where various creatures would live at different times. One day I went out to check on whatever it was at the time (I think a worm!) and it was gone. I was very concerned/sad and looked up at my dad for an explanation. He said it had gone to heaven, to be with its mom and dad. That moment really stuck with me, I think because it was one of the first times I had wondered about death. A few years later when I was 9, my best friend passed away suddenly, and then two years later our puppy was hit by a car and killed. In facing these incredibly difficult losses, I really relied on Christianity and prayer to make sense of it all. The belief that while someone is physically gone, he or she is not gone gone, is a gift, for a child or a person of any age. I personally can’t imagine my life without it. I realize, though, that it’s difficult to expose a child to a concept that is outside your own belief system. Joanna, I’m so sorry for your family’s devastating losses. It sounds like you’ve been extremely thoughtful about your approach to helping your son through it and I’m sure I will call on these tips in the future. I hope you and your husband are doing ok, too. Best wishes.

  63. As a religious person, talking to kids about death seems a little bit easier, at least in terms of what has happened to their bodies. We believe that death is not the end, and we will see our family members again one day.

    Kristi
    http://www.beloverly.com

  64. I agree that it’s such a gift to be around kids when something really sad happens. We lost a close friend a few years ago and being around my daughter was like a salve on the wound, when nothing else really eased the pain. They force you to be in the moment, and they’re so innocent and hopeful, and they need you.

  65. I lost a child to cancer before my two living daughters were born. It is important to me that my children know of this sister because she is part of the family from my husband’s and my perspective….plus there are days we are particularly sad and days we try to honor her (birthday, death day) and I want my daughters to understand what’s going on. We explain that sister Jordan is in heaven with Jesus. And while I think they probably believe that she is floating around in the clouds (they are 2 and 3 after all), I like that they have some way of feeling her presence in their lives…as do I. And as to how she died, we had to be very specific that Jordan had cancer but not many kids get cancer and neither of them have it so no worries on that part.

  66. When my 4yr old niece’s cat died. She asked me if Rocky was up in heaven with my Dad ( who died when I was nine). Her unexpected question gave me so much peace, to stop and visualize my Dad surrounded by SO many pets.
    when my daughter was five she became obsessed with death. She is adopted and decided her birth Mom must be dead. We visited my Dad’s grave because she asked to. She constantly said things like ” I just want us all to die together”, which frankly, was disturbing!
    Now at age 12 our 14 yr old dog just passed and the thought of heaven is such a comfort to her. She says he is eating at the Bacon Buffet!

  67. Last April my husband’s dad passed away unexpectedly. A year later, my boys (ages 9 and 4) continue to process what happened. Like Toby, my 4 year old asks lots of questions about what happened and why (and independently hit upon the concept of reincarnation). I recently stumbled upon a picture book titled “The Invisible String,” which isn’t a book about death per se, but just puts forth the notion that the love we feel for each other connects us, no matter how far apart we may be. That seemed to be a helpful read for him.

  68. I have a friend who did something interesting to introduce sons to death. When a friend of their’s grandfather died she took her boys to the funeral. They were exposed to cultural practices around death and could ask questions about it without their first experience being connected to the lost of a close relative. I thought it was a thoughtful decision.

  69. i haven’t had to explain death to my daughter yet (she’s 18 months old) but when my nephew died at 11 days old i was impressed at how plainly my sister explained his death to her kids (his cousins). we are mormon and the concept of life after death and that families can be together after death is a major principle of the religion and that really resonated with the little kids. even though they didn’t get to meet him, they like to talk about how we will be together with baby jonah again after we die. she has a son who would be the same age as my nephew so she tries to keep his memory alive as much as possible—hanging photos in their house and talking about him helps the kids remember him even though it’s been almost four years since he died.

    i really love these tips. definitely filing them away for the future! i remember going through phases of being obsessed with death and funerals when i was very young and playing funeral with my siblings and neighbors. kids are so curious and odd but i think it was healthy for me to go through those phases!

  70. Great post, thanks for sharing. Don’t forget that even very young children (like Anton!) need an explanation of why the grown ups are so sad. We forget that things like this can be a trauma for children of any age. Babies and toddlers hold memories in their bodies, even when they don’t have narrative memory. Signed, a therapist for families with young children.

  71. Beautiful post today. As always, I continue to be impressed with your blog. Such a relevant and important topic that most shy away from. Thank you for continuing to educate us in such a positive way and Wishing you continued support and love during your grief. It does get easier but as ive learned from losing my parents very suddenly it stays with you always. Kudos to you and Alex for talking to Toby about grief and loss. Its so profound and even though its hard your doing the right thing.

  72. The Washington Post published an article shortly after the school shooting in Newtown that addresses how some atheist families talked to their kids about death and tragedy. It was really spoke to me, even though we are religious, and it was helpful to the friends I passed it onto who are not.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/atheist-parents-comfort-children-about-death-without-talk-of-god-or-heaven/2012/12/22/4f59531c-4aeb-11e2-a6a6-aabac85e8036_story.html

  73. By the time I was ten I had lost both of my grandfathers and my dad. My dad died when I was seven, in an accident, it was sudden and very scary for me. I can tell you, from the child’s perspective, what I think was helpful about how my mom handled all of these deaths with me (particularly my father’s). So much of what you already wrote sounds perfect. Especially the answering any questions and being as open and honest as you can be. There is a LOT of fear as a child concerning death. Especially with people who are young (parents, aunts, uncles). Most children get to live a life where they don’t realize their parents can be taken from them until they are old enough to process that information. I imagine Toby relates his uncles to you and Alex (being similar ages). I too went through MAJOR separation anxiety. I was terrified that my mom would die if I didn’t keep my eye on her (sometimes it was even hard for me to let her go to bed), and this didn’t just happen when my dad died… it continued for years. I have to say that the best thing she did for me was be very, very patient. She allowed me to be nervous (it was valid – as is Toby’s anxiety… he knows something about the world now that is very scary). And she answered every question about what happened to my dad. Though accidents never make sense, I needed to rationalize (to the best of my 7-year old capability) why I didn’t have to worry about the exact same thing happening to her.

    It sounds like you have a great handle on what you’re doing and that you are doing it well. From what I’ve read about your parenting, I have no doubt that you will be patient with him and even know that Toby might be attached to you and Alex in a different way (always) than he might have been if he hadn’t had these experiences so early.

  74. When my mother died of cancer, my niece was about Toby’s age. A few months later, she was asking me all sorts of questions about my family, because kids at that age can’t quite understand family order (like that I’m her uncle’s wife, not his sister), so she asked me who my mommy was and where she was at. I explained, since we’re Christians that my mom had died of cancer and went to heaven. What happened next was really fascinating – she listed people she knew who had also recently passed, like her great grandma, and the neighbor’s dog. In her head, she saw them all hanging out together with Jesus. Whether or not she chooses to believe this later in life, for a little girl her age, it kept her from worrying about what had happened to them. When my husband’s grandfather died a month ago, it was another person she could add to the party she imagined in her mind. I think it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are 100% certain about what happens after death (even Christians have differing theologies about heaven), so I think the most important gifts we can offer children for processing death is imagination and flexibility.

  75. It’s nice to hear that you and so many of your readers are speaking to your children about the death of loved ones. When I was 9 years old, back in 1963, my eldest brother passed away from Leukemia. My other siblings and I knew he had been very ill, but when he passed away my parents had so much grief that they simply did not speak about his death, at least not in our presence. It damaged our family permanently and I sometimes wonder if they had just spoken to we remaining siblings if it would have saved the family. It was so many years ago….

  76. I think you are doing an amazing job helping Toby understand and experience his grief. I was drawn to work with an organization (Brooke’s Place) that helps grieving children and families after I experienced the sudden loss of my beloved uncle/godfather, and one of my favorite books to help children understand or start talking about grief is A Story for Hippo. It helped me too, and I’m an adult :)

  77. We aren’t religious, either, so I don’t have “heaven” and “God” to fall back on. I was really struggling with what to tell Grace but someone gave me some great advice: ask tiue child what he/she thinks happens when people die. Then-no matter what they say-tell them that might be exactly what happens be no one knows for sure. Grace is convinced that my grandfather still talks to her and is in a beautiful place surrounded by pear trees. :)

  78. This is wonderful advice for anyone, not only those with kids, but even for those with nieces and nephews or friends with children. Everyone should understand this as it can even be applicable to a pet dying.

  79. We have had to deal with a very close friend’s 4 month old baby dying and recently, my grandmother. We quickly learned that we needed to explain WHY the baby died and just not that he was sick. It quickly turned to fears about any sickness leading to death.
    We are considered a “religious” ( though I strongly dislike that word, it sometimes bring strong connotations that are not accurate) family and believe in Heaven. When my grandmother passed away, it was not a surprise, but still very hard to process. She was very active in the boys’ lives and very dear to me. We just explained that GiGi had passed away and now she was with Jesus in Heaven. My middle son came and hugged me and told me that I didn’t need to cry or be sad because she was just with Jesus, it was o.k. He told he would be sad and miss her, but he knew where she was and it was much, much better. I laughed through my tears and found much comfort in the words from the mouths of babes.

  80. I thank you. I haven’t dealt with death yet with my children, but we are going through a close family member with Alzheimer’s. This post parallels a lot of the actions that I’ve taken with my kids, and it’s reassuring that I am handling things in a balanced way.
    I think this post goes back to being honest with your children, because they are incredibly perceptive beings. If something is wrong, the fact that we include them in the process of grief, no matter what kind of grief, is what is important. This post came at an important time in my life, and I truly appreciate your candor.

  81. Learning the hard way, but Learning anyway : thanks for your advice and for sharing so simply. We experienced a loss recently too (apparently, it is in the air ?) and keep reminding our kids about the sweet and nice things the missed person did with/for them. We tell them to keep this old man alive in their hearts – as long as he is alive (i.e. cherished and remembered) for us, he remains among the living ones. We also tell them they have the right to be sad, and we cant help it.
    And time, time does the job… My thoughts to you and your loved ones through these tough times.

  82. My mom and dad always described death with an object lesson – as a child it really helped me conceptualize something that was difficult to describe. They used their hand and a glove :) They said everyone was made up of two things 1) A spirit which is our love, knowledge, thoughts, personality and all that is us. 2) A body of flesh and bones that we can feel and see and which is like a house for our spirit. They would put on the glove and wave their fingers around – showing how when we are born our spirit (hand) and our body (glove) come together. This is how we are when we are alive on this earth. They would then take their hand out of the glove – to show that when we die our spirit and body are separated and our spirit goes back to heaven. Their hand would still move showing that our spirit is still alive (we still have our love, knowledge, etc.) but is just in a different place now. And the glove (body)is now lifeless without the spirit. That is why we are buried and don’t need our body any more after we die. I always thought that was a lovely way to describe death and it always made a lot of sense to me as a child. Also helped me feel less fearful about what was happening to the body of that person I loved since I didn’t see it as “them” anymore.

  83. Three weeks ago I lost the baby I was pregnant with. My two year old still asks me every day “mama, is the baby still in your baby” and I tell her “no, it went away. But soon we hope there will be another baby in mama’s belly.” At first she was really concerned when I was crying all the time and she would try to turn it into a joke. But we explained to her that it’s ok to be sad. It’s not a bad thing. She’ll often ask me why I’m sad or what hurts, and I tell her I’m ok but my heart hurts a little. She’ll then kiss my chest and give me a hug. I can’t imagine going through these hard times without a child to keep me busy and happy despite the sadness.

  84. We lost seven family members in the second half of 2014 and in January 2015, and I have a three year old and one year old, so this is something that has weighed on me quite a bit. Most of the deaths were not people who were close to my daughter, but five months ago we lost my father-in-law…her beloved Pop Pop. She was just over two and a half when we lost him, and now that she’s just barely three she seems to suddenly be working through her thoughts. Just last night she told me when she got her new mommy and daddy she would put them in time out because she didn’t want them. When I asked her what she meant, she told me she was worried her dad and I were going to leave her. It was heartbreaking. Much like Toby, she seems to be having trouble with separation. She’s also been asking a lot of questions about her Pop Pop, and being sure to play with toys that he gave her.

    We are religious, but to answer your question we stuck with the physical basics and haven’t explained much about our spiritual beliefs. We told her that Pop Pop’s head had a boo boo (he died of brain cancer), and that his body stopped working. She did ask about Heaven the other day and we tried to give her some answers about our beliefs, but I think the concept of Heaven in regards to the death of a loved one is confusing for a three year old, so we are trying to stick to the basics as much as possible.

    The kids really do help you through the trying times, but caring for an infant while experiencing so much loss was so difficult that looking back on it I’m not sure how I survived!

  85. My sister lost her mother in law to cancer in a two month battle, so it was incredible quick and of course shocking and sad. I had known her as well and so it affected our family as I was there to support my sister during the tough time. It was so great to read this as my two daughters are 5 and 3 years old. The 5 year old does all the exact same things you described in Toby’s response- repeated questions, random questions (can dogs and cats die?? Can GIRL dogs die?) and will randomly blurt out “I miss Debbie! even though she maybe met her once and was very young and doesn’t remember. Sometimes she says she feels sad about it or talks about it when we pass a graveyard on our drive. I appreciated how you show how it’s a long process for kids and to explain and talk about it in bite sized chunks. This reminded me that she is processing it in a normal way as we talked to her in a very similar way you did with Toby. Our family is religious but we kept the spiritual aspect to quite a minimum (ie. Mama is Debbie with God? where is heaven? to which we answered, ‘yes she probably is with God and he is taking care of her now, and we don’t know where heaven is but in heaven she isn’t sick anymore and it’s supposed to be a lovely place but we have never been there before so we aren’t quite sure what it’s like’).
    Thank you for sharing this post and hope your family is doing well.

  86. As a teacher in a Christian school, I actually end up talking to my kindergartners about death fairly regularly. I draw from a passage in the Bible that talks about how this world isn’t our home – we’re just passing through here for a little while. It’s also helped (in my experience) to talk about how what makes you you lives on in your soul.

  87. I really liked Rachel’s suggestion above of an object lesson – the hand in a glove, and how the hand (spirit) goes to heaven and continues to live but the glove (body) stays on earth and isn’t useful anymore.

    We are Christian and so one night when my then-3yo daughter was asking about death I explained heaven and hell. She suddenly became really adamant that she wanted to go to hell *right now!* and be with the people who didn’t love Jesus, and didn’t want to wait until she was old like Grandma! That was a little surprising and unsettling (especially because it continued for two hours in the middle of the night…), but I rolled with it and told her that what she chose was up to her. I did tell her she probably wouldn’t die until she was very old, even though she wanted to die immediately.
    Last week (she’s 4 now) she was pretty excited about heaven and how there was going to be lots of delicious bread there…ha! :)

  88. I think you pretty much nailed it, Joanna. The only thing I’d add is that it’s a huge help to have pets (especially ones that don’t have a super-long life cycle, like gold fish) to help kids develop a frame of reference. I had never thought to spell out the “people will be sad” part- but this is so, so important. Thanks for tackling this tough topic.

  89. Regarding the religious people, I suppose this is going to be hard to understand but I’ll say it anyway. We life in a small country where most people born in it are Orthodox Christians (like the Russians are), so children get christened and all before it’s actually their choice, and almost everyone gets married in church, yada yada yada.
    Our family only actually goes to church for the annual memorial services of loved ones, christmas, and easter, and then there are the times when we attend weddings (VERY often, some people have to attend 2-3 weddings on the same Saturday),or funerals.
    Most of us are not religious in the sense that we dont miss a Sunday service or never say a bad thing, or always pray before a meal etc, but religion is eventually an important part of our lives at the end. Just some background to get the situation.
    When my brother died (he was very ill since his om birth) he was 10 years old, and I was 6. I came home from school and found the entire family (aunts and grandparents etc) in my sisters room (which used to be my brothers before we were born). Some aunt or family friend told me that my brother had died (which I was not expecting), and then I remember that the only comforting thing to me (at the time (we were also having religious education at public school as well), was that he has never done any harm to anyone, he was so pure that he surely became an angel close to God.
    At 6, I had a good idea of what death was, there were no questions or really awkward situations, but all the reactions you describe above, which you read/heard about or noticed on sweet Toby are normal as far as I understand, since I have lately been translating some leaflets regarding play therapy including cases where children lost someone: repeating questions to verify things, inability to understand the permanent nature of death, change in behavior, new fears, clingy behavior, etc. All of it is normal, and has a way to be dealt with.

    A very true post and a much needed one for many people, I’m sure.

  90. This is a quote I find useful in discussing the mystery of death with children:

    The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.

    —Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, pp. 155–157.

  91. Thank you for this post. Like other readers, this is well timed as my father in law has been given a year to live and so my husband is making a few trips back and forth to Australia ( we live in Denmark), to spend time with his Dad. I love how we adults complicate things so much when kids are sometimes far more matter of fact. When asked why his Dad was going to Australia, our 7 year old clearly stated, ‘ oh he’s just going to watch Grandpa Phil die’.

  92. I’m atheist and therefore don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven, but I do believe in science which tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed merely passed from one place to another. My 1 year old girl is too young to comprehend death yet, but hopefully, when she is older and we need to have these conversations she will find comfort in knowing that when we die all the energy that (great grandpa/ our dog etc.) used to dance and sing and smile and bark is still all around us. That we never truly lose a person, their energy, the thing that made them them, moves into the world around us. The difficulty will be finding the age appropriate language to explain.

  93. I have always talked about my parents (both deceased) to our oldest. “Grandma Janet used to make these with mommy.” “Grandpa Lloyd would have loved playing ninjas with you.” Etc. but recently he has been asking where they are and telling me about how he’s talked to them or been to their house. It’s hard to repeatedly say “no grandma Janet died when you were in mommy’s belly. She would have loved to meet you though. She’s always with you in your heart.” And we talk about how they went to be with Jesus in heaven. At Easter during his preschool class they talked a lot about Jesus on the cross, so he (briefly) thought all people had nails put in them when they died (seriously was funny. He was so convinced someone had hurt grandpa Lloyd). We still talk about death almost on a daily basis because we have their photos around the house and Lloyd (the almost 4 year old) is named for my father. He asks a lot about him particularly, but is often very bunt: “I am going to be so tall like Grandpa Lloyd. But he’s dead. He died. Grandma Janet is dead too. They died. They’re with Jesus though, right? [small pause] but you’re not dead. You’re here. Right mom? I’m going to be super tall like Superman.” And we are on a new topic.

    Sometimes it bothers me and I have to consciously remind myself that he’s 3, and he is barely grasping the concept. He still doesn’t quite understand how great-mama (what he dubbed my grandmother who is like the 85 year old energizer bunny), is my moms mom but mommy’s mommy is dead. But it is kind of backwards.

    Just today, in the middle of fixing lunch, we got back on the nails thing. “Mom, that guy with the hat hit nails into Jesus’s feet and stuff. Nailing people is sooooo bad. Did you know that? We don’t put nails in people. Nails are just to fix things with our tools. Grandpa Lloyd doesn’t have nails in his feet right? [no Lloyd, just Jesus.] How did why did grandpa Lloyd die? [His heart had a really bad boo-boo. The doctors just couldn’t fix it and he died. Sometimes doctors can’t fix things and it is very sad.] but my heart is ok right? [yes Lloyd, we made sure your heart is ok at the doctor remember?] uh yeah… What did grandma Janet die? [she had a really bad disease in her tummy. It hurt all the time and she was so sick Lloyd.] When I was in your tummy? [Yes. It is called cancer and it was scary but she tried a long time to get better and meet you. But sometimes it just doesn’t work that way.] ok.” And back to lunch.

    Overall, I think just talking to them about it takes away the fear. And keeping the memories alive is important, even if they ask some questions that sometimes they don’t understand make you sad/hurt/dredge up old feelings. The religion thing doesn’t add much change on for us. We aren’t bible thumpers or verse memorizers. We talk about how when people die they go to heaven to watch over us. That sometimes you can feel them with you when “your heart gets heavy”. That was the way I described my sadness to Lloyd on my fathers birthday (which is also the day my mom died, yes truth). So when I need time to myself he often asks “mommy is your heart heavy?” And if I say yes he knows to give me some time. Then hugs.

    I’m so sorry for this awful time for your family Joanna.

  94. My mother and both of my grandmothers died within a few months of each other when my son was 2.5 yrs old. We initially talked to him about them being in Heaven, but then one day I realized that he thought Heaven was just another place (city?) – somewhere they could return from. It wasn’t until I specifically said that they died that he really got it. After that I started being more direct about what had happened.

    My son is now in kindergarten and a few weeks ago I was having lunch with him, sitting at a table with several of his classmates. Out of the blue he announced, “My grannie died of cancer.” Even after 4 years, it’s still always just under the surface I guess. But the honest way kids talk about death is actually kind of refreshing!

  95. Wonderful advice Joanna, as always!

    My daughter-in-law lost her mother when my granddaughter was 18 months old. Then, she lost her father about 2 years ago – my granddaughter was at that time 7 and my grandson was 5. My DIL told her children that they are in heaven…this is not my belief, but it seems to be comforting. There are pictures all around…I tell stories about when her Nana and I gave her a bath together when she was a baby, which she always enjoys. Now that she is almost 10, she understands more about death, and of course, she and my grandson both remember their grandfather. At their ages we just tell happy stories about departed relatives, and answer questions truthfully.

  96. Joanna, I’m so sorry for your losses. I wanted to thank you for sharing this beautiful post.

  97. Such a thoughtful, emotional post. I dealt with death a lot growing up, more than many children I think, but I wasn’t quite as young as Toby. Death is a hard thing to understand and explain and come to terms with, even when you’re an adult! I think anyone would dread the day that they have to use these tips, but they are so helpful just the same. Thanks for sharing. xo

  98. Really great tips, Joanna. We have a book called Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope by Suzy Yell Marta that gives some of that same advice. It is a book that helps adults navigate how to talk with their children about death, divorce and crisis. I’d recommend it to anyone!

  99. A wonderful post. My father died unexpectedly when my daughter was 2 years old. I know she won’t have her own memories of him, so I try to share my own memories of the time they spent together.

    Sometimes we go through the exercise of closing our eyes and thinking something special about “Papa”– let’s remember his mustache, or how he used to laugh, or how he would read you stories.

    I’m hoping this way, she will always know how much he loved her, and hold him (even a tiny bit) in her heart.

    Gosh, now I’m getting tear-y.

  100. Sorry for your loss. Just had to comment and say that is such a beautiful photo of Toby. Perfectly captures the innocence of childhood.

  101. @lessthanperfectmama, i was just thinking the same thing. xo

  102. We’re Catholic, and we talk about Heaven. After every Easter when the kids review in school that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, they (at 7 and 5) seem to have a good understanding when it happens in real life. Good Friday is still hard for me to wrap my head around, and I’ve been Catholic for 8 years. We talk about my mom in Heaven whenever they bring it up.

  103. I was a little teary reading this post. Such great advice from everyone. On a happy note, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to connect with so many supportive and smart women when we need advice :)

  104. Dear Joanna –
    As a former grief counselor at a healing center for grieving children (Ele’s Place in Michigan), I can tell you that you are beautifully handling the difficult concept of death and loss with Toby. Additional resources on helping a grieving child and talking to a child about death can be found at http://www.elesplace.org. Also, the book “When Dinasaurs Die” was often read to the younger groups of children at the center as it helps them to better understand the permanence of death and to learn about feelings. Thank you so much for your honest and compassionate blog – I’ve enjoyed it for years. May you and your family be surrounded by much love and grace in the midst of your profound losses.

  105. Hi Joanna,

    So sorry for all the recent loss your family has been experiencing. I have a four year old daughter who on a regular basis asks me “Are we going to be on earth forever?” We are not religious, so I have stumbled through several answers for her. I am always looking for ways to explain these difficult questions (a few of which i still grapple with myself!) Thanks for this lovely post. I have put several books in my amazon cart and look forward to tackling these large life questions with her instead of dreading them.

  106. My baby son has only one living grandparent, so I’ll eventually be telling him about his grandfather and giving it a religious context. I’ll probably tell him that his grandpa lives in heaven with God – or something along those lines (haven’t quite thought it through completely yet). Your list is very useful though and I like that it’s so practical, because religious or not, feeling affect everyone.

  107. such a wonderful and thoughtful post. thank you for sharing!

  108. I wrote my master thesis on how to talk to children about death within a museum setting! Lovely to see this mentioned and being discussed!

  109. These are all really good. My husband lost his sister and father within 5 months of one another (one not expected, one expected). It was a difficult time, but we followed much the same guidelines with our then 6 y.o. son. Because he was in 1st grade, and was writing, we used journals and picture-drawings to help him express what he was feeling. It made us feel better, too, to see him creating. It’s been a year now and we still speak often of our lost family members. My best to you and yours during this time of sorrow.

  110. I lost my dad when I was 13. Thankfully my mom always talked and cried with us.

    How is your sister and niece doing? Wishing them peace and strength. xx

  111. Joanna, you are such a thoughtful, sweet mother. I’m so sorry your family has had so much heartbreak this winter, but the boys are so lucky to have you and Alex as parents.

    We are religious, and the deaths we have had lately were older family members, hence not as heart wrenching. In fact, my mother passed away just in February. The thing is, she had gone very suddenly downhill, mental health-wise, about a year and a half ago, so I had been grieving the loss of “my mom” for quite a while when she passed away. Also, we are very religious, and I know I will be reunited with my mom again, that we will be resurrected and perfected. The hard part of this is that, to my kids, and especially my 7-year-old, I didn’t seem adequately torn up about it and he voiced his concerns one night that I would be pretty even-keeled if *he* were to die. Needless to say, I can hardly even see as I type this, for the tears.

    It’s so important to share those stories to let our little ones know that our loved ones aren’t forgotten, and I’ve started sharing a lot more of my thoughts of missing my mom, since my kids don’t see [as many] tears.

    We do tell our kids, as we believe, that when we die, our spirits leave our bodies, but we will continue to be “us” forever, progressing eternally, and that we will be resurrected like Jesus was, and we can be with our families forever. It’s the Plan of Salvation.

    BUT I’ve learned (and again today, from you) it’s also important for them to see us cry and to see that we love and miss our people NOW, because that’s a really big part of love. Thanks for this wonderful post. Your family and your family and Alex’s are so loved by the community you’ve created. superXOX

  112. Beautiful tips. Thank you! I lost my beloved grandfather when I was a little girl and remember feeling comfort from knowing that, according to my mom and grandma, he had gone to heaven and that heaven was a happy place. I also loved that my mom made a photo album just for me with pictures of the two of us together.

  113. I am religious, but my son isn’t old enough to talk about these things yet. I often wonder how I will explain it. I want to be really careful not to use my beliefs about the afterlife to sort of railroad or discount how hard it is to lose someone.

    One thing I do like is that our church celebrates All Saints Day, which for us is a day to remember loved ones who have died, honor their contributions to our lives, and “anticipate the resurrection”– in other words, look forward to a day in which we will all be reunited in a world that is beyond death and untouched by death. We have a time in church that we can light candles and say the names of those who have died. It’s nice to have a formal time of remembrance together. Every year I am reminded that everyone is touched by grief. It is strangely comforting (but also so, so sad) not to be alone in that.

  114. I’m a new physician working in Palliative Care, and rely heavily on my Social Work / Child Life Specialist teammates for guidance in this area which is definitely not taught in medical school.

    Two of the resources they really like are:

    -The book “When Dinosaurs Die” http://www.amazon.com/When-Dinosaurs-Die-Understanding-Families/dp/0316119555

    -The “Grief” section of the Sesame Street website
    http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/topics/grief

    I also want to hold up that you explained a tough topic in such a gentle, loving way to Toby!

  115. Thank you for this! It’s so timely in our world. Yesterday we went to our neighbor’s visitation and weren’t prepared for an open casket. Needless to say, our almost four-year-old ended up in our bed last night and I’m realizing we need to do more talking with her. Beyond words, this is so helpful. We did and do talk to her and did say he died and went to heaven to be with Jesus like G’pa (my Dad) but this was before the casket so we have some more explaining to do … especially that he’s not in there sleeping.

  116. First of all, my condolences to you and your family. I couldn’t even imagine how difficult the situations was.

    I appreciate you providing us with these helpful tips. Easier said than done but we’ve got to deal with it when we’re already faced with the situation.

    Thank you!

  117. You are a great Momma, you are so sensitive and kind to your children helping them to navigate this tough life. I dread that conversation with my daughter and appreciate the advice you gave. A book that I read about on brain pickings to help kids cope with loss (I keep it in my cart on amazon for when I need it) is: http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/07/24/love-is-forever-childrens-book/

  118. When you say you aren’t religious, do you mean simply that you don’t go to church or do you mean that you believe there is nothing more than our physical presence? If you can accept the concept of a soul, you can utilize the heavens in your conversation. My children knew (from me) that they came from the heavens to be with us and our family. It was comforting for them to hear that a pet or relative was simply returning to the heavens. They visualize a happy place where the departed enjoy a new life together.

  119. Very timely. My MIL passed away this last weekend. She had been in hospital for over a month. They were so shocked that the drs couldn’t help her like she was safe in hospital. kids are 11,7 and 5. Its hard. The 7 year old had the most questions. My husband was surprised how well they handled it but I’m sure it will be an ongoing discussion.

  120. When my girls were younger, we told them that you go to heaven when you die and the family who have died will be there. If the person who died was very ill, then I would say that this person was no longer suffering. I also reassured my girls that their Dad and I would be around for a long time. Also, we are sad because we missed the person who passed away and it is normal to feel sad.

  121. Jo says...

    Such an important post Joanna, thank you for sharing!

    When I was about 6 years old (way back in the 80s) my mom’s best friend, my grandmother and one of my classmates passed away within 6 months, and this was the first time I realized that death is something permanent.

    I’m not from a religious family, so my parents took their time trying to explain why, and answer questions like: What happens when people die? Where do they go? Will I see them again? Do they still love me? When will you die? What if I die first? Where will mom and dad be when I die? (my mom kept a diary and wrote down all of my questions)

    In addition to answering my abundance of questions, my parents read me The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren (who also wrote Pippi Longstocking, Karlson on the roof and many other classic children books).
    I’m from Scandinavia and many Scandinavian parents turn to The Brothers Lionheart when facing the difficulty of talking about death with their young kids.
    Toby might still be a little too young for this book, but you should check it out. It’s such a beautiful, sad, adventurous and comforting book all in one, and it deals with a lot of the fears that young children (and the rest of us really) deal with like death and separation from our loved ones.

  122. My husband and I grew up in religious homes and have spent a lot of time processing what our “faith” means to us as adults. When we talk to our kids about death, we say, “There’s no way any of us can know for sure what happens when we die, but people who believe the Bible say if you believe in God, you go to heaven.”

    That said, I read this article (http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2015/01/20/378528953/what-if-heaven-is-not-for-real) and this thought comforted me immensely: “I’m not concerned about the many years of my nonexistence before birth. Why then should I be concerned about the many years of my nonexistence that will follow death? In other words, even though none of us existed 1,000 years ago, you don’t find many people worrying about their nonexistence during the Dark Ages. Our not-being in the past doesn’t worry us. So, why does our not-being in the future freak us out so much?”

  123. We lost one of our family dogs yesterday after a long battle, and we really had trouble trying to explain everything to our five-year-old. THANK YOU for today’s post. It came at the perfect time.

    The Busy Brunette
    http://thebusybrunette.blogspot.com/

  124. Oh man, I don’t have anything to add here, but I enjoy hearing how you explained it.

    Also, Hayls, your story just made me have to run to the bathroom for tissues. So, so sad.

  125. I love this. My parents were always very open about everything with me. When I was in 3rd grade my uncle passed away from AIDS. My mom was always very open about my uncle to me, even at a young age I knew he was sick with AIDS and I understood how I couldn’t get it. As parents we want to shield our kids from all the bad things but life doesn’t work that way. I think you need to be open with your kids just like you were with Toby. Everything of course is age specific, but I think kids understand a lot more then we give them credit for. I love this the advice you gave and how you handled it with him.

    <3
    heather
    fashionistanygirl.com

  126. My family is pretty religious, and I distinctly remember the conversation my mother and father had with me when my baby sister died when I was 3. One of my older brothers had died as a baby, so I already had a fairly good idea about what death meant. But they even had an object lesson with a hand and a glove. They illustrated that the glove was like a body, and the hand was the spirit. The body died and was left on earth, like a glove is useless without a spirit. The spirit then went to heaven to live there. We would also get helium balloons and release them in the sky for our siblings who had died. I remember that being comforting, a sort of way I could play with them.

  127. @shelbyisms, that’s so interesting! i feel like kids really identify with the children affected most by the death. toby kept saying “our daddy can be everyone’s daddy!” and was so excited that he had found a solution. so sweet/sad.

  128. It’s an impossibly hard topic, isn’t it? But these are all wonderful suggestions and I can vouch that many of them have worked for us as well! The frank, kind, and straightforward approach is effective and reassuring, though not always intuitive.

    My sons’ great grandmother died when they were 2.5 years old and we have talked of it often in the year and a half since.

    The boys were present at the burial and brought happy tears to the eyes of much of the family when they threw flowers into the grave on top of the coffin.

    But when we revisited her grave on the first anniversary of her death, I realized that it is very, very important to emphasize that the dead person isn’t using their body anymore and doesn’t mind being in a box in the ground because–as you described to Toby–she can’t talk or walk or eat anymore. Because they were a little concerned about that situation for Great Grandma!

    But the beautiful thing about the boys being present for the burial and subsequent memorials is that they see their family gathering together on these special days and toasting and telling stories in the cemetery and really celebrating the family members we have lost in a way that is joyful and mournful at the same time. It’s really wonderful for them to see this tradition every year and to know that even when people are gone, we remember them and we are still so happy that they were a part of our lives.

    We are also not religious, and we haven’t yet sufficiently explained the idea of just ceasing to exist, but luckily that’s so existential that the four-year-olds aren’t yet pursuing it too deeply.

  129. This is so interesting! I don’t have kids yet but I often think about this because my grandpa died when I was about 7, and we were just about to move in with him and my grandma (my dad had left us and our house was foreclosed–such a chaotic time!). It was such a crazy and sad time, and I was the youngest, and I just feel like everyone was too wrapped up in their own grief to really talk much about it with us kids. Only about a year or so later we had that giant earthquake in L.A., and we didn’t really talk about that either–now that I’m 30, I can look back and see how all of those events, and the not talking about them, made for a childhood that was filled with fear, thinking that something terrible could happen at any moment (which, I guess, is true! but not a good mindset to have). Anyway, I am a Christian and most Christians I know would say something to their kids about how Jesus conquered death by rising from the grave, and that he promised we would all live again after we die. So death does not have the last word, and therefore does not carry quite as much fear as total annihilation might. Recently wrote a piece about death/a theology professor who had to watch his dad deteriorate and then die of ALS–“To Live and Die Well” if you are interested! http://fullermag.com/live-die-well/

  130. What a wonderful and helpful post. Thank you so much. I really feel that every point you said is so perfect and helpful for navigating explaining the concept of death to a child. Thank you and I hope you and your family are feeling better.

  131. beautiful post. rough for toby to have significant deaths in his life so early, but maybe it will give him a strong foundation of perspective.

  132. This is a really great post, Joanna!

    My father-in-law died unexpectedly last month and while we didn’t have to tell any children about it, it was interesting to see how the other littles in our family reacted.

    Our six-year-old nephew flatly asked my husband, “What are you going to do now that you don’t have a Dad?” He was genuinely curious and his boldness was sweet and refreshing in the sea of sadness. Another favorite line from the day was “I’m laughing because I’m uncomfortable.” So sweet!

    I’ll be very interested to see how others respond to this post! Thank you.

  133. My goodness, your family has been through so much! I’m glad those lovely little boys can make you laugh through tears.

    We aren’t very religious but we will tell the kids that people go to heaven and you get to see them again when you die. We have many elderly family members (in their 90s!) so these conversations are coming.

    My BIL told his then 4 year old that when you die, you go in a box in the ground. That’s it. Poor kid was terrified until Nana fixed it. “Nana I don’t want to go in a box in the ground.” “Then you don’t have to!”

  134. My husband’s brother died about a year ago and our son was only three at the time. We had lost our beloved dog earlier that year and so when Uncle Kevin died we explained that he was now up in heaven with Roscoe. This seemed to give him great comfort, and he would frequently talk about them ‘taking care of each other’ in heaven. For us, the toughest part to explain was not that they were gone, but what happened. Both of them passed away from cancer and I found that was something very hard to explain in a way that didn’t make it seem too scary.

  135. I don’t have any advice, but this post is so timely! For the past year or so, our 5 year old has randomly brought up the topic of death, not in a carefree way, but in a sad, worried way. I’ve struggled with how to explain things to her honestly, but also in a simple, reassuring manner. It’s tough! I am somewhat religious, but haven’t exposed my daughter to religion much yet, so trying to introduce the idea of God, heaven, etc. at the same time is tough! I’ve tried a similar approach to yours so far – saying that Mommy and Daddy expect to live for a long time, that most people live long lives, etc. But I have to say, I find it hard to deal with this topic without getting choked up myself! :(
    I’ve done lots of research on kids books on the topic, and have The Fall of Freddie the Leaf on our shelf for the next time she brings up the topic. Looking forward to seeing the other responses on here!

  136. I’m so sorry that you’ve had such a difficult time lately. Those are some huge losses you’ve suffered, and I totally teared up reading this — thank you for taking the time to share how you’re guiding Toby through this. I’m sure it will be enormously helpful to many parents out there who will inevitably find themselves going through something similar. xo

  137. And children are such a comfort when we are sad, too. I remember going over to the neighbor to hold their little toddler when I heard one of my high school teachers had been killed. Now I look to my own little one for comfort- not in an obvious way that would frighten him, but just for cuddles that remind me that life and love go on.

  138. My son one day said he no longer wanted to have birthdays after he was 20 years old because that would mean that his father and I would be 100 years old and would therefore be “extinct like dinosaurs”. I am not quite sure what brought that on as we hadn’t really had any deaths in our family but I had to explain to him that we were going to be around for a long time and were going to try really hard to stay healthy. Also, I introduced the concept of reincarnation which is part of my faith. That led to some interesting follow up conversations!

  139. Jo I’m so sorry again for your family’s loss. When you have kids around, you are really forced to confront Death in a new light, I think.

    When my daughter was 3 (she is 4 now), her preschool teacher died suddenly. We were completely blown away, she seemed healthy and happy, I still vividly remember her smiling face when I dropped my daughter at school that day.

    We talk to her about death in the same way you do with Toby – very matter of fact, without religion. I wasn’t prepared for how many questions she’d have, and how in-depth they would be, and they always come at random times, like when we’re driving in the car or when we’re sitting at the table eating dinner.

    We explained that she was sick, but it was a different kind of sick that people can’t recover from. She would worry that her Dad and I would die, and I told her that we all talk special precautions to keep ourselves healthy – we get vaccinated, we visit the doctor, we eat healthy foods so that we can be around for a very long time. We are honest with her that one day everyone dies (including her Dad and I), but that it won’t happen until we are very old.

    It was very hard to talk about at first because I loved her teacher as much as she did, so I would tear up whenever we talked about her. But I was glad that I could share my sadness with her, that she learned it was okay to be sad. I told her that it’s important to remember our loved ones after they are gone, and we do that by sharing stories about them, so we’d always end our chats with nice stories about her teacher.

    All our love in this heartbreaking time for you. It will get easier. Xo.

  140. This is a great list. A lot of the things you said remind me of this book called The Whole Brain Child, which basically talks about how different hemispheres of the brain develop at different times throughout childhood, and therefore children often need help connecting the logical and emotional aspects of their life experiences.(As neuropsychologists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”) Talking through and discussing emotional events can be so important in helping your child become capable of dealing with difficult circumstances later on in life.

  141. Joanna, I love the way you speak to your children and work so hard to help them understand the world that they live in. This post brought tears to my eyes because you are doing such a truly beautiful thing for them. My husband and I don’t have children yet but we often discuss how we want to raise them and how we plan on talking to them about complicated topics like death, sex, and faith. We want to be able to be as straightforward, yet gentle, as possible when the time comes and your posts about these topics always stick with me. Thank you.

  142. Thank you so much for this! In my family, we’ve had a lot of death in the past couple years, and with our small children, it is still a daily topic, with several beloved cats, a great grandpa, and a grandpa dying, it has been so tricky navigating this! I love hearing your experiences, and wish the best for your family as the healing continues!

  143. Thanks for sharing this Joanna. I am filing it away and dreading the day I have to use it, but your tips are very helpful as always. Toby seems like such a gentle soul – I have a couple of minis just like that and it is such a wonderful responsibility to care for a soul like that. My kids are 4, 2.5 and 1 year old, and while we are always very focused on our 4 year old’s questions and thoughts, we have to remind ourselves that our 2 year old has a ton of questions and thoughts, even though he can’t express them as readily as his older brother…

    http://www.minipiccolini.com

  144. We are religous and explain death to match what we believe, which is that when we die, we will all be in heaven with Jesus. It’s a happy time. So while we are sad, and that it’s very very much ok to be sad, we are happy that we will see the person who died again. My husband’s father died last year, at the age of 60, and we had to explain it just as often with our 4, now 5 year old. He also talked very often about Papa, and how much he missed him. The thing we noticed was that he would feel our feelings. So when my husband cried, or I cried, he would sit with us and love on us, but would often cry later in the day. We were honest about how sick he was. He had Alzheimers and declined a lot, and our son knew he was sick. Especially near the end.

  145. I teach voice lessons to an 11 year old sweet sweet girl who’s mother passed from cancer two weeks ago, in our lesson yesterday she asked “what do I do when I get married now that my mom can’t help me pick out my dress”. Absolutely heartbreaking. I think I said something along the lines of “she’ll be there with you and you’ll have all of your aunts and cousins to help!” But what a difficult subject for children of all ages. Thanks for your post! Hope you are all well!

  146. My 90 year old grandfather died unexpectedly in February. My four and a half year old daughter was very close to him and has been taking it extremely hard. We told her the same thing you did about him not eating, talking, etc. She’s spoken of him every day and sometimes asks me to sing the songs we sang at his funeral. One thing that seemed to help was we framed a picture of him just for her. We let her choose the frame and sometimes she sleeps with it at night. It’s the first time I haven’t really been able to make it better for her and I can’t wait to see what tips your readers have for working through this.