Speaking with children about death

· Children and Teens,Family,Death and Dying,Parenting,Kim

The other day, our three year old and I were walking down the street and she noticed a bug that was lying on the ground and not moving. She said, “Oh poor bug, why isn’t he flying mama?” In this moment I had a choice. Do I sweep this (clearly dead bug) under the rug or do I tell her that the bug has died? Having worked for years with grieving families, I know the answer should be to process the death of this bee with my child, but for a split second I wanted to just enjoy the sunshine and move about our day…
Why would I take a perfectly nice walk on a beautiful day to talk about the death of a bee? Because the stakes were low. Developmentally between the ages of 3-6 children aren’t able to understand the permanence of death, but can engage in magical thinking. What does magical thinking mean for this age group? Children between 3-6 believe by their thoughts or words alone can make things happen in their world. By a child thinking or saying, “I’m so mad, I wish you were dead.” they may believe they caused the death of a loved one or friend. So how do we bridge the gap and start a conversation when the stakes are low? How can we practice in everyday life? At this stage of development we as caregivers can start a conversation about the death of a bug, a car, or why leaves fall from trees.
In that moment, I asked our daughter what bees usually do. “Oh, they fly mama! And they sit on flowers, and eat pollen!” (She’s a pretty verbal 3 year old!) Then I asked what the bee in front of her is doing, “He’s not moving.” I confirmed this with her and said, “You’re right—He’s not moving because he died. He was alive and flying, sitting on flowers, and eating pollen but he can’t do those things anymore. His body stopped working and he isn’t alive like you and I.” She looked at me curiously for a moment, then back at the bee and said, “Oh, okay mama! The bee died. Can we go find Gussy now? (our cat)”
Even after years of walking alongside people in their grief, I felt the impact of this moment in a totally different way. I wondered, did I say the right thing? Did I give her too much or not enough information? Is she going to have bad dreams about dead bees? The answer is, maybe but maybe not. Grief and loss are complex concepts for all of us. Allowing children to experience and process death in a moment where the stakes are low can provide a helpful frame of reference when the stakes become high when a loved one, friend, or caregiver dies. The important part is being open in those moments to conversation about death, and acknowledge that our children are trying to work through this process with our help.
How have you been brave and authentic with a child in your life surrounding death and the dying process? What questions may you have as this blog topic evolves in future posts?