Talking With Children About Death

Hedda SharapanI remember being flustered by a question from my four-year-old daughter. We were looking through a photo album, and I pointed out a picture of my grandfather. She asked where he was, and I told her simply that he died. But then she asked, “When is he coming back?” 

Even with all my background in communicating with children, quite frankly, I was struggling with how to answer her. How much? How little? For many reasons, talking about death may be one of the hardest things we’ll ever face, maybe because of our own anxieties or our fear of saying “the wrong words.” But as difficult and emotionally-sensitive this topic is, it’s part of life – even for many young children. 

Fred Rogers often addressed topics like death because he wanted to give adults helpful ways to talk with children about challenging situations. So as I offer his timeless wisdom about this and other topics, I hope that you'll see these newsletters and the archives as a resource, maybe even bookmark them, so you’ll be able to find them when you need them. 

On a very early Neighborhood episode Fred discovered a dead fish in his aquarium. After burying it in the yard, he talked with his young viewers. As you watch the video, listen for ways that Fred modeled talking with children about death.

Here are some of Fred’s writings that may help guide your conversations with children and their families when they are grieving:

Children misunderstandings

Most young children know something about death. They may have seen a dead bird or had a pet that died. Still, their notion of death is very limited and simplistic, and they probably have many misunderstandings. Their friends "play dead," then get up and run around again, and dead cartoon characters pop up alive again. It takes a long time for children to realize that death is permanent. It’s precisely because children don’t understand what death is about that they need help from loving adults in talking about it.

Each child reacts differently

When a loved one has died, some children may cry a lot, while others may not. Some find it easy to talk openly, and others hold their thoughts and feelings inside for a long time. One child might find comfort in music and another in drawing pictures. Some may even act as though nothing had happened and go about their everyday business of playing as usual. It takes time for children to understand what death means, and even when they understand, they may not feel ready to acknowledge their painful feelings. It’s important to honor that. Each one in the family has his or her own way of expressing grief at his or her own pace.

How playing can help

One of the most appropriate and necessary ways that children grieve is through their play. Some parents are uncomfortable when their children “play” about death right after a family member has died. Those parents may feel that it shows that the child is insensitive. But just the opposite is true. Children who play about death are usually feeling so sensitive about it that they’re using the best means they have to try to come to terms with what it means and how they feel about it.

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Over the years we produced a number of resources including a booklet for parents and a children’s activity book So Much to Think about: When Someone You Care about Has Died. 

Fred also felt it was important to guide families to resources in the community where there are professionals with experience and knowledge about young children and grieving. Many of these places have support groups for parents and children. When you tell parents about the resources that are available, you’re helping them realize that they are not alone, even in their grief…and that they are part of a caring “neighborhood”…a neighborhood that includes your care as well.

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