When Children Ask About Death (or Other Heavy Topics)

In this episode: The mother of an almost 4-year-old asks Janet if she’s responding appropriately to her daughter’s recent questions about death. She is trying to be open and honest and respectful of her daughter’s feelings, but she also doesn’t want her to “think or worry more about this than she should… I want her to be happy and not be scared of dying so much.”

Transcript of “When Children Ask About Death (or Other Heavy Topics)”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. This week, I’m responding to a comment I received on one of my posts on my website. The post is called “Teaching Our Children About Love And Loss.” And this mother posted a comment about her almost four-year-old who’s recently started asking a lot of questions about death. The mother’s wondering what I thought about the way that she’s handling the situation.

Here’s the comment I received:

“Janet, I have a death-related question that I am tagging on here, because I haven’t seen you discuss this in my searches. My daughter is almost four and is starting to understand about death. She has recently asked me questions such as, ‘Will you be sad when I die,’ and, ‘I’m scared to die. Are you?’ She has never had anyone in her life die, so this is not a personal issue and hopefully not something she should be dealing with. We have had very honest yet age-appropriate discussions about this, and I have never been dismissive of her concerns or avoided the questions, but after discussing for a few minutes, she usually asked me as I’m tucking her into bed, I tell her not to worry about dying, that hopefully neither she nor I will die for a long time, and that I want her to be happy and not scared of dying so much. She’s not even four, so I’m trying to be respectful of her feelings and be as honest as possible without leading her to think or worry more about this than she should. Am I addressing this correctly?”

Okay, so this is interesting, because this mother is taking a very thoughtful approach to her daughter’s questions and interest in this subject, and is making a point not to be dismissive and to be respectful, but what she shares here in this note does sound a little like, without meaning to, she’s trying to discourage her daughter from talking about this, in the most loving way. She’s trying to reassure her “Don’t worry about this,” but just these words alone, “I tell her not to worry about dying.” There, she’s saying, “Don’t feel the way you’re feeling,” which I know is not this mother’s intention at all. But I think the mother’s discomfort is coming through a little here.

I imagine that will, as it normally does, make her daughter feel even a little bit more worried, actually. When someone’s telling you, I don’t want you to worry about this. I want you to be happy and not be scared of this, but then the little girl can’t help how she is feeling… and when her mother’s saying, Don’t feel these things, then it’s a little bit disconcerting as a child, because, Why can’t we talk about these things? Why is there a little bit of discomfort and fear around this coming from my mother?  My parents are the people I’m looking to. I’m looking to their tone around things and the way they address things to know how I should feel about them, to a certain extent.

This is very subtle, but it stuck out for me, because, again, when I hear things like telling someone, “Don’t worry,” and that, “I want you to be happy, and I don’t want you to be scared,” when a child is scared, is usually not the most helpful approach. For me, I can say that one of the most important things for me as a parent is to be that person that my child can approach any subject with. I think we all, as people, need somebody like that in our life.

Maybe it’s a different person that I can broach this subject with and a different person that I can broach that subject with, but we need people that we can explore with, that we can explore our thoughts with, even if they’re inappropriate, or scary, or might hurt someone’s feelings. If we’re feeling it and we’re curious about it, and we want to know more, ideally, we’re going to have somebody in our life that we can explore with. I want to be that person for my children.

I believe it is the greatest honor to be trusted in that way, but it takes a lot of bravery on our part, because we have to be willing to go to the darkest places in our child’s thoughts and feelings, and be okay with having them go there, even when they scare us. We don’t want our child to think of worrying about dying and, yet, I believe we have to prioritize our child’s need to do this.

I would say things like, “Wow. This is really worrying you. What about it worries you?”  An in response to these particular questions, “Will you be sad when I die?” I would be honest about that. I would say, “There’s not much chance at all that you would die before I would die, but if that did happen, I would be very, very sad. I would be completely heartbroken and crushed.”

If she says, “I’m scared to die. Are you?” I would be honest about that as well. I personally am not afraid of dying. I’m more afraid of other things, so I would say, “I’m actually not afraid of that, but I hear that you are. What about it frightens you?”

I also, selfishly… I want to know what’s going on with my child. I want to know how they’re perceiving things and what they’re thinking about them and what impressions they’re getting in their environment. I mean, who knows where she got these ideas, or how her thoughts turned this way? But I want to know. I’m really interested in what my children think about things and what’s going on with them, what’s going on in those minds of theirs, in those hearts of theirs.

I see these as precious conversations that I wouldn’t try to rush through, that I would not want to discourage in any way. In fact, the opposite. Yes, I would also say things like, “This is not likely to happen for a very long time,” if she was asking about me dying. “I plan to live a very, very long time, just so you know. That’s what I think about things, but I hear that this is on your mind. You’re worried about this,” and have that be okay. Just allow those feelings to live.

I think this mother is definitely in the right direction. Her intentions are wonderful and all in the right place. I would just say that there may be some discomfort that’s coming through here to her daughter in the way that she’s handling this.

When parents ask me about anything, there’s one thing I always know. I’ve said this before, whether this is a consultation with a parent, or someone’s just asking me a question online somewhere, or in person in one of my classes… I have the information immediately that their child very, very likely senses that the parent is not comfortable about this — that the parent is either baffled about what to do in this situation, not sure of themselves, maybe afraid, uncomfortable in some way. Just that fact alone means that the child is not going to be completely comfortable.

So if it’s about a behavior, then that behavior will often be repeated because the child is wondering, “Why does this make my parents uncomfortable, why don’t my parents have a handle on this?” And in this case, I believe that the little girl is feeling like: I’m worried, and now I see that, actually, my mother’s worried that I’m worried, and that makes me even more worried.

This is tough stuff, and really, we’re never going to be perfect at this. Our feelings are going to come through, and that’s okay. It’s not like we’re supposed to be super-humans and not have our own concerns about our child’s concerns. But if the majority of the time we do address our child with this kind of openness and curiosity that I’m talking about, then they will feel safer to have the feelings they have, and to explore them, and to share them with us.

There’s something about putting everything out there, putting all our worst fears out there, that allows them to be put to rest.

The end of the day is a time to think about this. Even the process of going to sleep, there’s a letting go there. It feels like we disappear. It feels like we kind of die a little bit there, so that makes sense as well that it’s coming up for her at that time at the end of the day.

Anyway, it may come to light as to what stimulated these thoughts for this child, or it may not completely, but the mother has a much better chance of knowing that and knowing a lot of other interesting things and helpful things about her child, and having that intimacy and that bonding that comes through being able to be in these discussions. There are times in our children’s lives as they get older where it can actually be life-saving to be able to tell us these kinds of feelings.

I hope that helps.

Please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thank you all so much for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Dear Janet,
    I have been inspired by your work for more than 2 years now (since before my daughter Tosia was born) and am trying to promote RIE in my home country – Poland, blogging. Let me start by thanking you for your great advice, books and podcasts 🙂
    Interestingly for the first time I have not found any answer to my new specific question on your site. As you can imagine, it is related to death and how to talk about it. But I had a different problem than described above and in your other post when you replied ho to handle loss of a loved one.
    In my situation I an my wife Natalia simply visited graves of our loved ones in a publice cementary and took Tosia with us. None of those people were known to Tosia before so she has not been through any loss yet. She just turned 2 and I wanted to explain where we are. And got stuck… I wanted to be respectful and honest and said something like “these are places where people lie under ground because they died”. Then suddenly I realised that I wanted to explain a new term – “to die”. So I continued “this means they fell asleep for a very long time”. Then I spoke to some therapist that warned me not to compare being dead to sleeping as it may scare my child to fall asleep.
    So I am puzzled. How would you explain to a 2-year old what cementary is and what “to die” means?
    Hopefully you will be able to share a comment on this.
    Thank you very much and warm regards!

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