Explaining Death to Children
Explaining death to children is difficult. No one will tell you it’s easy, but there are things you can do to make the conversation less painful.
Disclaimer — I am not a doctor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I’m a mom of eight. Death is something I’ve had to explain to my children many times. This blog post is to help you be able to talk to yours.
Disclaimer #2 — We are Christians. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and through Him, the Bible says, I have a future and a hope. Therefore, all I believe about this life has been learned while doing my best to prepare for the next.
This morning, as I sit here writing this blog post, I’m listening to a mama cow bawl to her baby that died in the night. It’s heartbreaking, to say the least. There’s nothing I can do for her. I cannot comfort her and it’s too late to help her baby.
Sidenote — Yesterday, her baby was fine. Nothing seemed to be wrong. But there’s always the chance with baby calves that something will go wrong during the first three days. Once they make it past the first three days, as long as they stay with their mama, they’ll probably be ok.
How do I prepare my kids to understand?
Teach them while they’re young.
I’ve always taught my children to value life. We try not to kill the bugs we see as helpful. You may think that’s silly, but it shows them that everything has a purpose. And, as long as it’s not hurting us we’ll let it live. That doesn’t mean I let flies or cockroaches live in my home. We do frequent pest control, uhem, we’re on a farm, bugs are EVERYWHERE.
It means I take the Granddaddy Longlegs and moths back outside. I explain to the littles that they have a purpose and what exactly that purpose is. That usually opens a conversation about how we all have a purpose
m,When we see a dead animal, or when the children see it on their own, I definitely don’t point out roadkill, I explain that they were hit by a car, got sick, or whatever caused the end result. This is also a potential lesson in not running out in the road or you could end up as “Exhibit A.” I use whatever means necessary to teach safety. Don’t judge me. I’ve been a mom for 21 years, kids listen when they truly think they might die and I don’t sugarcoat things. I’m not that kind of mom.
Let them have small pets. Let them grieve when they die.
Nothing teaches love and devotion like pets. And, when the time comes, they also teach us that life is fleeting, nothing lives forever, and it breaks our hearts when they’re gone.
Please don’t be that parent that says, “I don’t ever want my child to hurt because their pet died.” You are not doing your kiddo any favors by telling him or her that Fido ran away, that Goldie wanted to go swim with big fish in the sea, or that Roscoe wanted to go back home to his mom and dad. At that point, your child just feels abandoned by their best friend.
Tell your kid the truth. They can handle it. You can be gentle with them and still make it clear that Fido isn’t coming back.
“I’m so sorry, Katie. Fido got sick and even though we tried, we couldn’t make him better and he died. I’m so sorry.”
Be kind, be comforting, show your child lots of love and know that it is okay to cry with them. When a family pet dies you all mourn the loss.
Let them grieve their pet’s death as long as it takes, but give them a little space.
I comfort myself and my children with Isaiah 11:6 ESV. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”
To me, this means there will be animals in Heaven and I’ll see my fur babies again someday.
What is death?
According to Google, the definition of death is “the action or fact of dying or being killed; the end of the life of a person or organism.” However, you don’t want to spout that off at your child when they’ve just experienced the loss of their best friend.
You want to explain death to children in a more comforting, less stiff, way.
Regardless if the death was of a person or an animal, death is death to a child. Really, there is no difference to them. If appropriate, you could let your child know that they just went to sleep.
“Did it hurt?”
Depending on the circumstances, the death may have been traumatic and initially, there may have been pain. I let my children know that sometimes it hurts for a just little while, but then the pain is gone and it doesn’t come back.
Saying something like, “It’s kind of like when you were stung by the wasp. It hurt for a little while, but when it stopped the pain didn’t come back. (I have no scientific basis for this. I know what I’ve been told by doctors and nurses in various circumstances while sitting with loved ones that were dying, and articles I’ve read. None of those can I remember now to reference.)
Carry on with life as usual.
After allowing time to grieve, life needs to pick up and carry on as usual. Stress to your child that you will always have your memories of your pet or loved one, but that life has to move forward. You don’t have to stop loving them, you just have to keep going. There are still chores to be done and homework to be completed.
It’s normal to express grief, but you can’t live there.
There will be other questions.
You can rest assured there will be more questions. Kids think of them later and they’ll ask them as long as they know it’s okay to ask.
Leave the lines of communication open between you and your children. If you don’t know the answer to their questions, let them know that you don’t know. Let them know that there are many questions that people don’t know the answers to.
We teach our children about Heaven, that Heaven is a real place, and if we live our lives the way God intends, we will go there. The innocent go to Heaven, is something else we believe, whether it be animal or human.
The Mama Cow
Getting back to the mama cow…
She eventually walked away from her dead baby, continuing to bawl. When she left it I was able to retrieve the body and set it aside. My brother-in-law came later to handle the baby’s body.
My children knew I took the baby from the field and they knew it had died. The questions they had were, “Why is her mama bawling?,” “Why doesn’t she know her baby is dead?,” and “Why did it die?”
The only question I couldn’t answer was “Why did it die?” I really don’t know. It’s been so wet and muddy here, it could’ve taken pneumonia, but I really don’t know. So, I tell my kids what I think, we try to make sense of it, and we move on.
Our hearts ache for the mama cow and we know that in a day or two she’ll quit bawling for her baby. She’ll slowly realize her baby isn’t coming back.
A very sad story, but we very seldom rejoice when someone or something dies. We mourn and we move on.
Living on a farm has its ups and its downs, always. Part of this story was about one of our downs, but we had an up this week too. We were able to save the life of a newborn heifer, just by warming her and showing her some love.