Explaining the Death of a Loved One to a Very Young Child

This question was posed to me several times recently, by one of my young friends (let’s call him Joshua -- that isn’t his real name) who had only just turned 4 years old. His beloved “Boppa” (grandfather) had recently died and he was trying to understand why.

I was not prepared for that particular question. Most of his questions and those of my other charges related to things like teddy bears, Spider Man, and sometimes scientific matters, like what causes earthquakes, what is fog and where does it come from, and those sorts of questions.

Joshua was very concerned about death after his Boppa died and every day he would ask me the same question. Every day he would have the same strained look on his face, as he seemed to be struggling with trying to understand about death. Since he continued to ask the same questions, it was clear my answers had not yet made sense to him.

Joshua continued to ask me, “Why do people die all the time? Why do people die? Why haven’t you died? Am I going to die?”

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When children are suddenly and unexpectedly faced with the death of a loved one, they naturally start to worry that more of the people they care about will die.

Joshua not only began asking about death, which was a mystery to him, but he also expressed a concern that other loved ones might suddenly disappear from his life as a result of this strange and scary thing called death. He also worried about his own death.

Perhaps it was my inability to remove uncertainty from the mix that was unsettling to Joshua. I could reassure him only to a point, that neither of his parents would die anytime soon. I could not tell him that he absolutely would not die soon, but only that he, like most people, would most probably live for many more years to come. I could only tell him that the possibility of his, or his parent’s deaths was unlikely. I could not guarantee it, as he seemed to want me to do.

Since I work for a government entity I have to be careful not to include any reference to religion when answering questions children ask me - no, I am not a school teacher. Sometimes not being able to reference any religious belief can make it tougher to come up with an answer.

Some parents are uncomfortable and therefore hesitant to answer questions on certain subjects, yet that is part of a parent’s responsibilities. No one I know has ever said parenting is easy, and surely trying to explain death to a very young child may be one of the more challenging times.

The following are some of the questions and answers Joshua and I discussed. I do not claim to have all the answers or even the best answers, but perhaps this will help someone else if they are confronted with these, or similar questions from a young child on death.

Questions and Answers

Joshua: “Why do people die?”

Me: “There are a lot of different reasons why people die. Sometimes it is because they are sick and their body is not able to overcome the sickness and mend itself. Sometimes people are hurt in an accident and their body is not able to repair itself because the injuries (hurts, owies, or whatever words your child understands) are too severe. When people get very old their body often gets tired because it has lived a long time and so their body simply wears out. Sort of like when you have a favorite toy that you take everywhere you go and after a long time it wears out. Was your Boppa old?”

Joshua: “Yes, he was an old man. But why was he old?”

Me: “Your Boppa was old because he lived a long time. Most people live a long time before they die.”

Joshua: “Why didn’t you die?”

Me: “Because I have been able to stay healthy enough to stay alive, and I have been lucky not to have been in an accident that I could not recover from. When I have gotten sick, my body has always been able to get well again. When I have been in accidents, my body has always been able to repair itself and get well again. Eventually I will die too. No one knows for sure when they might die, but most people do not die until they are very old.”

Joshua: “Is my mommy going to die?”

Me: “Someday, a long, long time from now when you are all grown up, your mommy will die. That will be a long time from now, and you may even have a little boy of your own just like you by the time that happens.”

Joshua: “But why do people die?”

Me: “Have you ever had a toy that got broken?”

Joshua: “Yes.”

Me: “Was your mommy or daddy always able to fix the broken toy? Did you ever have a toy that got broken that daddy or mommy could not fix?”

Joshua: “Yes, a lot of my toys that broke had to be thrown away. They couldn’t fix them.”

Me: “Sometimes that happens to people. They have an accident, or get sick, and the doctor can’t fix them. The doctor tries very hard to help them get well again, but sometimes nothing will fix them and they die. That is always a sad time, and we miss not being able to see or talk to that person anymore. Then we try to remember all the happy times we spent with that person. Did you have fun with your Boppa when he came to visit?”

Joshua: “Yes, we always had fun.” At this Joshua smiled for the first time during our conversations.

Joshua: “But how do you know when you are going to die?”

Me: “Most people do not know when they are going to die. Sometimes when people are very old or very sick they will know they are going to die soon, but they don’t know exactly when. They do not know what day or what time it will be. Sometimes when people are hurt very badly they know they are going to die, but they do not know exactly when. They just know it will be soon. Most people do not know when it is going to happen. They just know it does not usually happen to people until they are very old.”

Getting Comfortable With An Uncomfortable Subject

It can be helpful in discussing this subject with children, if you are comfortable with the subject yourself. Children easily pick up on attitudes people have about different things. No matter what you say, if you are uncomfortable with the subject, or dislike the subject you are talking about, children will usually sense that.

Death is a natural part of life. Everyone and every living thing eventually dies

So often people who know they are dying want to talk about it with someone, but no one will give them this comfort because so many people are uncomfortable with the subject and fear they will say the wrong thing, or will not know what to say at all.

Talking about death is not morbid. It is no different than talking about any other subject. Death is not only a natural part of life, but it is a fact of life. We must all deal with death at some point -- the death of our parents and other relatives, friends, acquaintances, our own death, and sadly, sometimes the death of our children.

Children Naturally Want To Know How a Death Is Going To Affect Them

Children need reassurance that most things in their lives are not going to change as the result of a death in the family. Sometimes things will change radically if it is the death of a parent, but there are many things that can remain stable and those things should be pointed out so that children have an anchor of sorts that they can hang onto emotionally and psychologically.

Very often what concerns young children most is, “What is going to become of me? How is this going to affect me?” This is natural and adults should do their best to reassure children that all is going to be well with time. Pointing out things that are not going to change can be comforting to children when they are facing something traumatically new or different in their lives.

© 2011 C E Clark

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Comments 35 comments

Au fait profile image

Au fait 19 months ago from North Texas Author

Phyllis Doyle, thank you for reading and commenting on this article! I was forbidden from going to the funerals of my favorite aunt and uncle because I was only 4 and 6 when they died. Living on a farm, I knew what death was. I'm hoping people will eventually see that death is a part of life and stop trying to hide it from their children and from themselves.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 19 months ago from North Texas Author

Patricia (pstraubie48), thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts on this subject. I was not allowed to attend the funerals of my favorite aunt and uncle who both died before I was 6 years old. I think it was unfortunate because one can't grow up on a farm and not know what death is.

Since I was talking with a student and on the clock for our school district I couldn't bring up God or religion unless the student did, and so I wasn't able to incorporate any sort of religious belief or relationship with God into our discussions.

Thank you for the votes, and the share, and for the angels!


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 19 months ago from High desert of Nevada.

This is a very interesting and useful hub for many who have to face a child and explain about death. For some people it seems to come easy, for others not so easy.

When we attended my Mother's funeral, a relative took me aside and said that my daughter and I should not have allowed my grandson to be there, that he was too young. I told her that my grandson had a deep love for his Great Grandma and had every right to be there to pray for her soul and tell her goodbye for now. I also told her that it was part of life and would help my grandson understand more clearly.

You did well to write about this issue, Au Fait. I am sure it will help many.


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 19 months ago from sunny Florida

You offer a plausible discussion to have with a young child.

When I was teaching young children often came to school, saddened over the loss of a precious pet or a loving family member or friend.

They came to me and we would talk through their feelings to the extent that they wanted to discuss it.

They were looking for a safe place, a safe way to understand and wrap their heads around this often sudden loss.

We would sometimes discuss it as a class if it was the death of someone we all knew.

I have my own personal experience. When I was just newly turned four, my sister who was four years older than me, died after a short illness from a brain tumor. She went to the hospital and never came home.

And my family told me that she had gone to be with the Angels and that she too was an Angel.

At the funeral, there was an open casket (which now I find maudlin and ghastly) but at the time it was perfect for my little mind. My Momma had made her a beautiful white satin dress and she did indeed look angelic with her flowing black tresses lying on the fabric of her dress. My Daddy held me up and told me to wave goodbye to her. And I did. I left that day sad that she was gone but not fearful or afraid of death ....it was an introduction to a part of life that I did not know existed. After that precious pets did die and so did loved ones and because of that experience I handled it much better, I think, that if I had not had such a loving experience.

Angels are on the way to you this afternoon ps

Voted up+++ shared


Au fait profile image

Au fait 20 months ago from North Texas Author

Peggy W, thank you for your kind comments and for the tweet and the share! Indeed one never knows when their train will pull into the station, so always try to stay on good terms with the people you care about most and don't leave important things unsaid.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 20 months ago from Houston, Texas

I am sure that you are a great comfort to children faced with death. That student class and two teachers who went to Barcelona to polish their Spanish skills and who died in that airplane crash on the way back to Germany brings this to the forefront. Death can come unexpectedly at any time. It is good to know that people like you can help students through that transition of grieving and coming to terms with it.

Giving this a tweet and sharing once again.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 22 months ago from North Texas Author

Peggy W, thank you for reading this article and sharing your thoughts on this important subject. Since I was working for the school district (gov. entity) I had to be careful about talking any kind of religion. If the child brought the subject of God up then I felt I could discuss it with them (not sure if I'm correct here), but I never could bring it up first. Agree if I could have discussed God with the little boy here, assuming he was Christian, it would likely have brought him a little more comfort.

However at his age, just 4, this child's biggest concerns were for himself. How to go on while deeply missing his boppa, and concern that his parents, or even he himself might die, since he didn't understand what caused that condition in the first place.

It is normal and common for young children to worry about what will become of themselves when there is a death of someone close to them. It isn't a matter of being self centered though very young children usually are self centered because they haven't had the opportunity to learn anything different. They are still extremely dependent on the people around them and so it is naturally scarier for them when one or more of them die, than it is for older children. They really need a lot of assurance that all will be well and that they will be OK too. I tried to give him that assurance since that was what he worried about the most from what he said over and over again.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 22 months ago from Houston, Texas

I can't believe that I have not read this article of your previously. It is a good one and certainly relates to a topic that many people have to address whether they are prepared or not. Some deaths are expected and others happen with no advance notice. Obviously we all die at some point. You have addressed this nicely when talking to a child.

Those who have religious backgrounds and believe in a life beyond this, it would obviously make the pain of saying goodbye when a loved one dies a bit easier.

Up votes and sharing!


Au fait profile image

Au fait 23 months ago from North Texas Author

smcopywrite, thank you for reading this article and sharing your thoughts. I agree with what you say and I think sharing your feelings with your children will help them deal with the new circumstances as well. Let them know you will greatly miss the person who has died and let them know it's OK to share their feelings and to cry if that's how they feel. It's normal and natural to feel sad that you won't be able to see or talk to someone you love again. Then as you say, be sure to talk about the wonderful memories and basically to celebrate that loved one's life who has passed on.

Best wishes for a fantastic 2015!


smcopywrite profile image

smcopywrite 23 months ago from all over the web

this was wonderful. i have not been strong enough to write on this subject, but certainly have lived it. i have two children who lost three of their four grandparents. both of them were at an age where they understood the finality of death and losing someone they knew and loved. it is a difficult thing to talk about. even adults find the words hard to say or come by when they are needed most.

i feel it is very important for kids to understand the loved one is not alone and in my circumstance moving on to a better place. discussing some of the very good times helps as well. all three of the grandparents were taken by cancer so living through this long and terrifying illness took a toll on my family as a whole as well.

thanks for sharing this experience and i know lots of people will benefit from it.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you vandyngl for sharing your thoughts and experience on this subject with my readers. Having grown up on a farm, death is a regular visitor, and I learned early what it was, yet my mother didn't like to talk about it with me when relatives died and I was never allowed to attend a funeral until I was 11. It was closed casket.

Like so many things, children are curious and they actually don't look at things the same way as an adult. They like nuts and bolts explanations because that is often what worries them and they wonder how whatever it is works and why it happens and that sort of thing. They are not so much into the spiritual side of it as they will be when they're older.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Yes Sam, that is what I meant. It isn't the sort of thing someone can do for you and forcing people to go to God like a parent might force a child to eat their veggies doesn't work. In fact it doesn't work with helping them to find God or establish a relationship with Him and it doesn't work very well getting kids to like their veggies either.


samowhamo profile image

samowhamo 3 years ago

I think the belief in some kind of afterlife helps people cope with death and makes them less afraid. By the way in your previous comment you said (I also think one has to find God for him or herself in order to have any real faith and belief in Him.) If you mean accepting Jesus Christ as lord and savior (as the Bible says that is the only true way to find God) than yes you are absolutely right I myself do believe in Jesus.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you Paul Kuehn, for reading, voting on, sharing with your followers both here and on FB, and for pinning/tweeting this hub. A special thank you for sharing your experience on this subject.

While I have a close relationship with God, I try not to be too pushy about it. I think that can have the opposite affect, and of course we are forbidden from talking with students about God at my workplace, unless they raise the issue themselves. Even then it's a sensitive subject and we have to be careful.

I think having a close relationship with God is important in accepting so many things in our lives, though I do not condone blaming God for every horrible thing that happens on this planet as some people seem to like to do. I also think one has to find God for him or herself in order to have any real faith and belief in Him.

The only thing I suggest to people searching for God or meaning to life, or however one wishes to characterize that plight, is to take a few minutes everyday when they will have quiet alone time and start a conversation with God. Continue to do this for a long time, speaking to Him as though He is right there beside you, your best friend. With patience and allowing time for his response (this requires listening in addition to talking which one can do in their mind, no spoken word is required), one will eventually come to know that God is real and that He really is their best friend.

Not getting the answers you want is not proof He doesn't exist (talk about double negatives!). By that logic children could say parents do not exist.

God has proven His existence to me even though I didn't require any proof, and never asked for or expected any proof. With patience and sincerity, I think anyone might have a similar experience.

I do not think the problem we have the world over is with God, but with people who think they speak for God and who insist on interpreting everything from a legalistic viewpoint. No one can meet the legal requirements set forth in the Bible which is why we need mercy and forgiveness. Interpretation of the Bible scriptures by fallible humans who want to use it to force their will onto others is the problem. Neither God nor the Bible are the problem. Wrong interpretation and insistence on blaming God when people use the free will He gave us to do ugly things is the problem. For some reason a lot of people think it was good that God gave them a free will, but bad that God is not regulating everyone else's free will that they do not agree with.


vandynegl profile image

vandynegl 3 years ago from Ohio Valley

Hi Au fait,

Very useful information here and I like your dialogue with the four year old. I've had some similar conversations with my own son (who is now 6) for the past two years. I think it is so hard for adults to discuss it with children because they want to shelter the child from harm and heartache, but really, it is worse that way. I've done as you did.....explain it in simple terms. And sometimes, they will still continue to ask.....I've told my son at times that I don't always have the answers either....and I don't!

Voted up!


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

Au fait,

This is an awesome hub about certainly one of the most unpopular topics-death. I remember as a child of 6 being diagnosed with an acute appendicitis, and the family doctor saying that I had to be rushed to a hospital for an operation. I was so scared and kept asking the doctor and my mother if I was going to die. I don't know what they said to me, but I was reassured that I would pull through the operation and be well again. Since that time I have tried to avoid any discussion about my mortality and dieing. Even now at almost 70 years of age, I don't want to think about dieing and what will happen after I die. My parents were about the same until they got into their mid 70s. At about that time my dad became very religious and called himself a born again Christian. At that time my folks prepaid for their funeral arrangements to save us kids from the trouble. Both of them requested no formal funeral with showing of their bodies, wakes, church services, and burial in a cemetery. Instead, they only requested cremations and having us kids spread their ashes in the woods on our farm. I know my father definitely was not afraid to die. On the day he passed away, he said to my sister in the hospital, "You get old, and you die." My father was 88 when he died. My mother had Parkinsons and her death was much more painful than my father's. In the last year of her life when I saw her, she admitted being afraid to die. Although my mother was a very good person, she wasn't near as religious or had the same faith my father did. This was a great hub explaining to a child why people die. Voted up as awesome, interesting, and useful. Sharing with followers and on Facebook. Also Pinning and Tweeting.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Yes, I have had to talk with a young child about the very real possibility that her father might die and soon. I think telling the truth helps people deal with reality better than anything, but of course one needs to speak that truth with kindness.

Death is traumatic for everyone, adult and child both, even when it is expected. Only time can help make losing someone you love easier.

For young children, refusing to talk about a loved one's death only makes it more mysterious and in turn scary. The child I wrote about here wanted to understand why his beloved boppa had died, but also whether his parents or he himself might follow suit very soon, and it worried him. What the mind imagines is often worse than the truth.


George 3 years ago

I can't imagine telling a child that someone they loved has expired and they will not see them again, or talk to them. How do you prevent such trauma to a little one. Have you ever had to tell a child something so tragic.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you moonlake for leaving a comment and sharing your sister-in-law's experience. Glad if this hub was at all helpful.


moonlake profile image

moonlake 3 years ago from America

My sister-in-law died a few days ago. She said it was the strangest thing she heard her daughter yelling at her to wake up. When they did bring her back she ask where her daughter was. They told her that her daughter wasn't there. She was really upset because she didn't see the light or anything at all while she was gone.

Enjoyed your hub even though it was about death. A very hard subject to explain to a child.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you James Peters for reading and commenting on this hub. Glad you found this subject of interest. I think a lot of people are curious about death because the subject has been one of those issues that is generally considered off limits, like money and sex.

Another one of my students, this one 14 instead of 4, has recently been asking me all sorts of questions about death. I knew some of the answers, but others required research. I'll be publishing that article one of these days because I imagine my student isn't likely the only person with similar questions on the subject.

Thanks for the votes, etc.!


James Peters profile image

James Peters 3 years ago from Hammond, Indiana

This is a GREAT article. I find "death" rather interesting, but ot in a MORBID kind of way...it's hard to explain.

Thumbs Up & More

Write On!


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

girishpuri: Thank you for taking time to read and comment on my hub. Glad if it was helpful to you.


girishpuri profile image

girishpuri 4 years ago from NCR , INDIA

Your hub i a real inspiration, voted up.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

As I have pointed out, death is a part of life. Having grown up on a farm, I learned what death was at a very early age. Children can and do understand much more than they are often given credit for. I believe I took death in stride better than my mother did.

With very young children, I think there main concerns are how will this death affect me and my life? Could this happen to other people I love? Or even to me?

One of the most painful affects of death, especially for young children, but for most people of all ages, is being permanently separated from a loved one who has died and learning to cope with that reality.

Geo: Thank you for taking time to make comments!


georges zemah 4 years ago

yes, it's really hard for a child who has an age where he just started to understand the language or about all of a sudden it goes to this terrible tragedy of what we call death, and eventually we must all down this road.his will be the role of parents or grandparents who must start with a new way of doing and talk about it because the fragility of the child may cause injury if not followed properly. it is not so easy to do but if we try to keep us really aware of what is really happening in this little world. I congratulate you for your article. geo


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Having grown up on a farm, I learned about death very early. I think you may be right Angela, that people may be over protecting their children to some extent. Thanks again for your comments!


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Angela: Thank you again for your very insightful comments. I agree with you regarding the shielding of children.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Johnny Windows: Thank you for taking time to read and comment on my hub!


Angela Blair profile image

Angela Blair 4 years ago from Central Texas

I'm delighted about your choice of subjects. I've noticed that children are often "protected" where death is concerned in our society today. Consequently when they're suddenly confronted with it they have no reference point at all and it's doubly confusing to them. My son, even as a small child, accompanied me when I had to attend a funeral. We did not approach the coffin, etc. as I felt that was too much but from an early age he was aware of death, accepted it as a part of life and I think had a realistic attitude on the subject as an adult. Children will accept what's presented as "normal" from a very young age. If they're shielded from life's sorrows -- like death -- it can become a most frightening prospect if/when it becomes unavoidable to face it. Your answers to "Joshua" were well thought out and presented. He's a lucky child to have your counsel. Great HUB and voted UP! Best, Sis


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Chelseacharlleston: Thank you for adding your comments to the discussion!


Jonny windows profile image

Jonny windows 4 years ago from u.k.

A great article,and an interesting topic . keep em coming !


Au fait profile image

Au fait 4 years ago from North Texas Author

Thank you susannah42 for sharing. You have my deepest sympathies. Losing a child must be one of the most painful burdens one can bear. I'm glad if this hub was even a teeny bit of help. Thank you for taking time to read and comment.


chelseacharleston profile image

chelseacharleston 4 years ago

I love when people write about unpopular topics. Good stuff. People don't realize how much every other facet of their lives could improve if only they would more openly and honestly examine their own mortality.


susannah42 profile image

susannah42 4 years ago from Florida

Thank you for a really inspiring hub. In my family, we recently had to explain to grandchildren, why their uncle, who was only 18 died of cancer. It was and still is a very difficult to explain.

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