Talking to Older Children about Death

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Talking to a 7-year-old about a murder

June 2008

I recently started dating a woman whose sister was murdered in the most horrific way possible 30 years ago at the age of 11. My 7 yo daughter has seen pictures of this sister, and has heard my girlfriend mention her, so she knows she existed. She recently asked more about her, and we told her she was dead, and then she asked more about it, naturally. We basically said that she had been killed and that it was sad. But I definitely don't want to go into any more detail than that. Does anyone have any suggestions for a good way to talk about this? I know we are not done with this topic. Thanks

I'm not a therapist or a specialist in this area. And perhaps the best advice would be to speak with one. But I wanted to share a perspective I'll never forget from my own childhood... when I was between the ages of about 8 and 12, ''stranger danger'' was in vogue as a way to make children aware of kidnappers. I knew and was vigilant in hearing stories of children my age being kidnapped, was told not to trust strangers, etc. From an adult perspective, I understand the tactic. As a child, however, this ''awareness'' translated to my absolute certainty that I would be kidnapped. I was afraid, had nightmares, and dug out a hiding place behind a foil of toys under my bed so if someone came into the house I'd be safe.

My point is, no matter how you explain violence done to children to a child, she's likely to internalize it as something that can - or even will - happen to her. And while the cautionary tale (don't get in that car, etc) is a good one, the fear it instills can be quite distracting to a happy childhood.

I don't have advice about what exactly to say, but simply to reinforce that mindfulness will be paramount. And of course I applaud your asking advice before plunging in. Maybe a local child psychologist can offer more. Emily

Dear \x93Talking\x94, First of all, I am so sorry for your girlfriend\x92s loss. I do not have experience with this myself, but it does seem that one possible angle is to emphasize who the sister was as a person, rather than focusing at all on the manner in which she died. Of course you are asking this question because you obviously don\x92t want to traumatize your seven year old. Is it possible to talk about the sister who passed away in terms of what she was like and how much her sister misses her, in order to a) have your daughter be aware of the deceased sister as she would an ancestor who had died, or any other family member who had died before she had a chance to know them and b) to create empathy for your girlfriend and her loss.

Also, I wonder if seeking the input of a professional who specializes in talking to children about death would be a good idea?

I have no professional knowledge about this whatsoever but it does seem to me that it would be important to not discuss the details of the murder until she is much much older \x96 maybe 17?

I hope this is not indelicate or inappropriate of me to say this, but I believe that I may know the murder to which you are referring. In 1978 I was a 9 year old living in Moraga, and an 11 year old girl from the community was murdered. I was in the same class as a girl that I think was the cousin of the murder victim. I never ever forgot about the murder, and when the case was solved a few years ago, I was so relieved for the family. If this is the same case, I just want you to know that there are many of us out here who continued to care for all these years. She was not forgotten.

I wish you the very best with this situation. Sincerely, M.

I have strong feelings about your post because in all my years of teaching I've seen many kids robbed of their chance to be kids and feel safe in the world because parents feel it's their job to teach them about the ''real world.'' Our kids are going to be familiar with all the horrible stuff that goes on (even to people in our own families, my condolences to yours) soon enough. It may be a bit protective but I plan on being rather vague when it comes to things like this with my son, until he's got more years and more awareness. -another mama

7-year-old worried about dying

July 2007

My 7 year old daughter heard about the tragedy with the local family found up in Tilden Park a few weeks ago, which brought to her attention for the first time that it is possible for a child to die. She's thinking about it quite a lot, it seems, and though we talked about how sick the daddy must have been, and explained that these things are very rare, she is afraid to go to sleep some nights now, fearful that she will die, or that we, the rest of her family, might die. Any suggestions for how to deal with this fear, how to talk to her about it, etc.? Thanks. Too Close To Home...

Several years ago a friend's partner died, leaving two small children. I searched for websites to help out in that situation and put them onto a page called Death and Dying on my website:

That said, I personally, would sit my child down and say that we are not here on this earth so that people can dwell on our deaths. We are here so that people can remember us and honor us. Then you can ask if she'd like to do something to remember the children and family, and if/when she says yes, you can manufacture a handy-dandy ritual. IMHO rituals have real functions, especialy to children. Perhaps she buries a small drawing that she makes, or burns it, or ... whatever. Perhaps you can go and buy a special candle/smudge stick/piece of incense.

The point here is to let her channel her emotions toward something that you gently tell her is what we do. It will give her emotions a little context and safety, and hopefully will allow her to move on.

I would encourage her to honor the spirit of the family and NOT to dwell on how they died, and would treat the entire thing with respect, but in a matter of fact way. And when the ritual is over, I wouldn't let her dwell on it, because that's just not what you do.

No idea what others would think of this approach, but ... there you go. A suggestion. ritual-appeciating mom

Here are some thoughts: If your daughter is able to articulate what she is afraid of that would help you figure out how and what to talk about. If not, talk about your own experiences of having loved ones die. Death is very scary for people to talk about and death that is violent and horrible is a real tragedy and terrifying. In this society we usually say that a lost one was lost, or taken, or passed on and we use these kind of words to avoid the word or thought of death. In the case of the family that was found in Tilden Park, I wonder if your daughter is scared about times spent in the park, that something bad is going to happen to your family. Start talking with her about what you all can do to stay safe. If you don't feel safe with someone what to do, etc. Try to find out what she is afraid of and give her the tools for safety. Whatever you do, don't promise that death will somehow be avoided. We are after all going to die and no one knows when. If you need to talk to someone about your own fears about death do that. Talk to a pastor, rabbi, priest or therapist. Many people fear death and yet we will all face it at some point. All the best! Rachel

11-year-old's fear of dying

August 2005

My 11 year old has developed a very huge fear of death. At night when he is trying to fall asleep he will come in and tell me he is afraid of dying - often in tears. At one point he told me (during the day) that he thought there was something wrong with him because he worries about dying too much. He would like to go to therapy because of his fear - we have a therapist he used to see, but any advice or similar experience would be great. Lev

I very clearly remember going through something like this when I was an 11-year-old girl. I don't remember the feeling daily, but I did have an irrational fear of uncontrollable events like nuclear war, which I worried about every time I heard a plane fly over. (I blame this on my parents, who read chapters of _Hiroshima_ to me.) These fears made me feel very small and alone.

One day, I told my mom after school that I was ''afraid of life'' (which was really more ''afraid of bad things that could happen in life, like death'') and she took me extremely seriously. She called my father at work and asked him to come home, and he spent the afternoon walking and talking with me about my fears. I was mortified that she called him, but in retrospect, I think it was the right thing to do. It made me realize that my fears were important to them and that there are ways to talk out and combat fear. I don't remember when these fears ended, but I do remember that over time and after some discussion with my parents, I grew out of them. Hope this helps. anon

My mom is a teacher and had a student the same age who had a fear of dying as well. My mom advised her parents that they were dealing with a bright child who saw the world as it was and worried. It seems like it might be helpful for him to talk to someone and to know that what he is feeling is normal (he is just feeling it sooner than most). Good Luck

I totally feel for your son! When I was his age I had a real fear of death -- sounds very similar, in that I would most often focus on it right before I went to bed. When I thought about dying I just ultimately would come to a place of total terror and have to run out of the room I was in (often to my parents room in tears). The bad news is that I think I didn't really fully get beyond it till I was in my early 20s, and I actually know a couple other people who have had similar experiences. I did seek some therapy about it, and was told by one therapist that (1) I couldn't really be scared of death because I didn't know what it was, or what would happen in death so (2) the idea of death must represent something else that I was scared of. I kicked that thought around for a while (death = isolation/loneliness) -- never seemed exactly right, but was helpful to think about it. I think it is not a bad idea to help your son to examine what about the thought of dying is scary to him (and a good therapist could help with that). My parents were very honest and matter of fact about it (not religious people): ''Yes you will die someday, and yes it can be scary because it is unknown. But it is very unlikely to be anytime soon, and you don't have any control over it, other than living in a reasonable way. So while it will be a hard thing to do, when your thoughts about it well up and scare you, you just have to let the anxiety around it go... just let it pass by you. When you think about it, just follow that thought with, I am here today, and people I love are here today, and that's what matters!'' Kind of helping to work on being present-minded. I wish I had more helpful thoughts, but in my experience it was just an anxiety that I over time slowly learned to cope with/live with. No silver bullet (which if you think about it makes sense, I mean death is a very complex and final thing. No way to make it go away, no way to pretend it doesn't make people scared or sad. We just have to find ways to live with the fact that it exists). And in terms of your son worrying that there is something wrong with him -- the way I look at it, it is completely normal (meaning, it frequently happens, and it follows logic that it frequently happens) to have anxiety about something as big, unknown and important as death. The key is to learn how to manage that anxiety in a healthy, productive way. I was and am a happy/optimistic person, have had lots of success in life, but death scared the bejesus out of me for the majority of my life (and still makes me a little nervous)! I don't know anyone who thinks dying is fun!

How to tell my children, 2 and 7, their grandmother is dying?

September 2002

My wonderful and loving mother is in the hospital in a coma and the doctors don't expect her to live. I have two children, age 7 and 2 1/2, and I was wondering how to tell my children that their beloved grandmother is dying. Is it appropriate for them to see her in the hospital' I think it might scare them. I find myself crying all the time. I try to hold back the tears around the children because it upsets them, but I can't always. What do I tell them when they see me crying' Are there any good books on dealing with grief, or on explaining grief and loss to young children' I almost feel that I just can't handle this horrible, sudden loss while still being a good mother. Any advice would be gratefully appreciated. Grieving Daughter and Mother

I am sorry to hear of your mother's illness. My grandmother died when I was 6 and I have always been sad and resentful about the fact that the hospital did not allow me to see her before she died. Apparently it was their policy (this was in NYC in the mid 1970's) not to allow small children in the unit she was in. It may be particularly memorable to me because I was with her when she became ill and I was the person who had to call for help, and then when they came and took her away I never saw her again or got to say goodbye. It left a very strong impression with me that it is important to be able to say goodbye to loved ones. I think you could prepare your children (or at least the older one, I don't have experience to speak about the younger one) for what to expect in the hospital, and obviously talking about your and their feelings would be important. You didn't mention whether they have expressed any feelings about going to the hospital and/or saying goodbye to their grandmother. I think that unless they are very scared or otherwise averse to going to the hospital that it would be a good part of the grieving process. But if it does not work out for whatever reason, I can imagine other creative ways of helping them grasp the reality of the loss (she didn't just disappear one day) and saying goodbye to her, which I think are the most important parts. Best wishes to you and them in this difficult time. Kate

I am so sorry about your mother, and my heart goes out to you. I do not have experience about telling my children about a dying parent, but my husband's father died before the children were born. I do talk about him, and tell them that he died, and that everyone misses him, and so on. As for your children, I bet that they can deal with the whole issue better than you can. They might ask a lot of questions, or seem more interested in you and your feelings, rather than the fact that their grandma is dying. I would be honest. If they see you crying, say that you are sad because you miss/are worried about grandma. I always tell my children, when they ask about death, that people die when they get to the end of their life. They seem comfortable with this. Good luck to you and your family. Maria

It seems to me that no amount of maturing in life prepares any of us for grief or death. Children are no less capable than adults in coping with grief and no less vulnerable to it. I think sharing your grief and your children's grief will bring you closer together, and it may even speed your recoveries. My condolences to you and yours. kim

As a second and third grade teacher, I've had numerous opportunities to discuss death with my students. Several class pets have passed away as well as my own family members and relatives and pets of my students. My favorite books to use are Badger's Parting Gifts and Lifetimes. I don't have the authors off the top of my head, but they are both picture books for children. Thinking of all of you dealing with this subject. Tess

My heart absolutely goes out to you.... My mother passed away two years ago, quite unexpectedly (she was only 63), and it's been a terribly difficult loss to come to terms with. I hope that's not what you're facing, but I wish you all the strength you need.

When my mom died, my daughter was just over 2, and my nephew (who was extremely close to my mom) was almost 5. While my mom was in the hospital (also in a coma), my sister decided not to take her son to see her, since she looked so awful. She explained to her son that his Grammy wouldn't look like herself and couldn't talk to him, and he seemed to feel comfortable with that. Instead, she had him draw cards for her and took those in every day. That at least gave him a sense of ''connection,'' and seemed to mean a great deal to him.

A 7-year-old, though, might be able to handle an actual visit, if he's a fairly resilient kid and you prepare him in advance and tell him that his grandmother might be able to hear him even if she couldn't respond. In the months to come, it could bring him comfort knowing he was able to hold her hand and say goodbye. (I wouldn't bring a 2-year-old, though.)

As for expressing your own grief in front of the kids, I think it's important to do it (though perhaps more moderately than you do in private.) If you try to keep it all secret, they're going to sense that something is terribly wrong anyway, and they won't be sure what it is, and that will just scare them.

Even my two-year-old seemed to understand when I talked to her about why I was sad. As we talked, I also learned how attached she already was to my mother, and how sad she was that she couldn't play with her anymore. She had a lot of questions about death, and really had to work through the issues in her mind (is she coming back? can I visit her? where is she now? etc.) We looked at pictures of my mom, talked about the fun things we'd done together, and talked about how we could still talk to her, even though we wouldn't hear her talking back to us. And, of course, I reassured her often that her daddy and I weren't going anywhere, and that she'd have her mommy until she was an old woman herself (even if I can't really guarantee that.)

Two years later, we still talk about her a lot, so she still has a presence in my daughter's life. Both she and my nephew say from time to time that they miss their Grammy, but both generally talk about her happily.

Good luck to you! Elise

I am so sorry to hear about your mother. Really, it's heartbreaking. I lost my father a month after my daughter turned one, so I didn't have to deal with the issue until she was older. My daughter, now age 4, seems to talk about death a lot, having been named after two deceased relatives, having lost her grandfather, and more recently a great great aunt. I think it's OK for our kids to see us crying. We're human beings - we get sad, we cry. Recently, my daughter asked if I missed my dad. I said I missed him a lot, but I keep him in my heart. This is true, and this is what I have chosen to teach my daughter. I keep pictures of my dad around - nice smiling ones. I show my daughter pictures of my dad with her when she was a baby and remind her that we have pictures and home movies to help us have happy memories, and I tell stories about my dad to keep his memory alive (something that wasn't done when my mom died and thus, I have no memories of her at all). I would not take your children to the hospital. I think that would be too much for them to handle. I also didn't take my daughter to my great-aunt's funeral - again, I feel she was too young. We have also explained to our daughter that when you die, your body stops working. There are a number of good books for children archived on the website to help explain death to them. Go to a bookstore if you can and read them to see if they will work for you and your family. My thoughts are with you at this difficult time. Been there, sadly...