Talking About Death With Young Children


The first time grief catches me off guard, I am reading an article about swallowing incorrectly. My daughter’s speech was slow to develop and is still not as articulate as is typical for her age. I read the article and wonder about her facial muscles, if an issue with mouth movement could possibly be causing her often random mispronunciations. I suddenly remember that my aunt, who passed away now four months ago, was a myofunctional therapist at one point when I was a child.

I want her back.

I want to ask her about my daughter. I crave the answers and insight that would come not only from her technical knowledge but more importantly from her relationship with her niece. I long for a combined professional and personal opinion from someone who loves my kid and knows her well. 

I can’t have that.

When she died, my kids didn’t initially react to the news. I told them their Aunt Cindy died and they stared at me blankly, asked a few questions, and ran off to play. But the months have passed, and now the holidays with them. The loss has become more tangible for my children. It’s not surprising that it has taken time. After all, they may not have seen her on a random Thursday, and we often went a couple weeks without visiting. Now, however, they’ve known Thanksgiving and Christmas and four months of no visits or lunches together. They’ve felt the loss.

Out of the blue, they begin to ask me questions and start to make comments that reveal an underlying sense of loss. They are processing their grief, even when it isn’t readily apparent. “Mama,” my daughter suddenly announces from bed one night, “Aunt Cindy won’t come to the party.”

“She’ll miss our birthday party?” My son speaks up as he realizes the implications. “But… then she won’t eat my cake. And she’ll be hungry. Mama! Will she never eat my cake again?” The idea is nearly too much for me, much less for a child. I try to imagine a lifetime of unshared birthday cakes, stretching on for decades. The weight of it is nearly crushing.

I tell him, no, she will never eat his cake again, and that it’s very sad.

Without thinking it through, I ask him if he wants to save a piece of his cake for her. As the words come out of my mouth, I’m already wondering what we can even do with the extra piece. But it feels right to save it, and my son agrees.

My kids and their great-aunt Cindy on their third birthday.

I don’t fully know how to walk with my children through processing this loss, especially as I’m still processing and feeling it deeply myself. There are a few things we’ve been doing over the past few months: 

Talk openly.

We talk about her all the time. Sometimes I lead the conversation, sometimes they do. So many birthday and holiday gifts she purchased them keep both her absence and our memories in the front of our minds. 

There are many helpful books on the subject (though so far they haven’t had interest in many of them). Familiar movies provide also some context: Moana’s grandmother dies, Bambi’s mom dies, Simba’s dad dies. The permanence is still hard for them to grasp: maybe she’ll come back! Maybe we could build her! or, in the words of my daughter, “Maybe another one will show up.” 

According to Mister Rogers, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” So we talk. 

Provide simple answers.

When talking to my children, it’s difficult for me to not try to jump ahead to answer every potential question. I have a tendency to spew out all possible information that might ever apply to the question being asked, but that isn’t really a positive thing when it comes to talking with children (and probably not with anyone). It’s also difficult to remember how very much young children don’t know. I have to reign in my need to answer all the things and to overcomplicate.

Remember together.

My kids are at an age where they are starting to enjoy looking at pictures together, which is exciting for me because I love taking pictures and also reminiscing about them. We look at pictures and I point out relatives they never knew and also those who have died. I tell them stories they know and stories they don’t. We are building a chain of memories, linking them to their past and retelling the stories and memories we will carry into the future.

Here is another post about helping children through the grieving process

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Sarah Hyatt
Sarah has lived in the Columbus area her entire life, despite spending winters longing for tropical beaches. She always knew she wanted to be a mom, so once she had the space, Sarah chose to become a foster parent, a decision that led to meeting and eventually adopting the greatest kids in the world, her now four-year-old boy/girl twins. Together they enjoy exploring playgrounds and parks around central Ohio, having dance parties in the car to Koo Koo Kanga Roo and The Shazzbots, and repeated viewings of Moana.  Sarah somehow completed a master’s in education while her kids were toddlers, though she still isn’t sure how. She previously worked in higher education, however, since becoming a mom her interests have shifted to early childhood, as for her, one of the greatest joys of motherhood has been watching her children play and grow and rediscovering the world through their eyes. Sarah enjoys finding the joy in everyday moments through photography, finding the right words to express feelings and ideas in writing, and finding the most ridiculous items possible at thrift stores. She is a hoarder of information as evidenced by her lengthy library reserve list, though more often than not all her library books are returned unread -- the siren call of Netflix is too strong.