Feb. 1, 2021

Ask Margaret - Talking to Kids About Death

A listener asks how to help a child asking anxious questions after his classmate's parent died.

Today's question comes from our Facebook group:

"My son is 5 years old and in pre-K. One of the kiddos in his class lost his dad when he was very young. Since learning this, my son has started asking us about death, and has started worrying that something is going to happen to me or my husband. I'm not sure how to talk to him about it. I want him to know that it does happen, and we need to be compassionate to his friend, but also don't want him to worry every day. How can I bring this hard topic down to his level?"

Five years old is a developmentally-appropriate age for kids to start having significant questions about death, along with real worries about dying themselves or losing one of their parents. That's true whether or not they've experienced the death of someone close to them.

These questions can be hard for parents because, unlike most of the other questions our kids ask, we don't have any perfectly satisfying answers to provide. Questions like "Why did my friend's dad die so young?" or "Are you going to die, Mommy?" can rattle us because we find these questions frightening and difficult ourselves.

The solution is to talk openly and honestly with our children about death. Avoid metaphors and imagery like "He's gone to a better place," or "He's sleeping with the angels," which can confuse kids or make them think death is temporary. Instead, try to speak plainly about death, even if you find it very difficult. Explain that when people die, they don't come back. That is why death feels so sad for those who are still living. These discussions can– and should– also involve your own beliefs and religious traditions.

Margaret also cites Anya Kamanetz's NPR article "Be Honest and Concrete: Tips for Talking To Kids About Death." Kamanetz reminds us that kids take in knowledge the way they eat an apple - a few small bites at a time. It's a great reminder to avoid overburdening kids with too much information. Instead, answer questions as they come up, read books that deal with death in an age-appropriate way, and discuss them openly– so your kids always feel that they have a chance to talk out things with you, even if those things feel scary.

Margaret praises the book 'Tuck Everlasting' in this episode, which is available in our Bookshop store:


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