Talking to your children about death

Recently, I was listening to a phenomenal story on This American Life about The Sharing Place, an organization in Salt Lake City that provides grief support for children. The story focused on the difficult task of discussing death with children. 

I will never forget the first time I discussed death with one of my children. I’ve written here about how a friend’s struggle with cancer and the horrific car accident of another friend have affected me. What I wasn’t expecting is how it would affect Griffin. 

The day we learned Amelia might not wake up Griffin was in a house full of kids playing all manner of good guy v. bad buy games. At one point, he screamed above the fray to the young daughter of a friend of mine, “I’m going to kill you!”

I lost it.

I screamed for so long and so loudly I silenced a house full of five adults and eleven children. When I was finished, everyone – including Griffin – was looking only at me. 


He didn’t look scared. He looked more shocked. After I’d had a moment to realize my preschooler wasn’t mocking the overwhelming sorrow I felt at that moment, I took him aside and tried to explain what it meant to kill someone and what it meant for someone to never ever come back.

I could tell he didn’t understand me.

Then, a few weeks later, it came up again. We were sitting quietly at the breakfast table when he started talking about death. He explained he was never going to die. 

I took a deep breath.

“No, sweetie, that’s not true. Everyone dies. You will die. Amos will die. I will die. Daddy will die. Hopefully, this will not happen for a very long time but everyone dies eventually,” I told him.

My voice filled with emotion and my eyes filled with tears as I watched my firstborn’s face crumple with sadness. 

“But that makes me so sad,” he started to cry.

I held him close and told him I knew it made him sad. I told him that it made me sad, too. So very, very sad. I didn’t use the promise of heaven to make it better. Not because I don’t believe in heaven, as I’ve stated before I’m not quite sure what I believe

However, at that moment, I felt like I was telling my child something very difficult. Sometimes things are hard and you just have to be in the moment and feel the heaviness of that – without excuse or attempts at solutions. 

It took me a long time to understand that.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that I taught the entirety of that lesson to my son in one small conversation at three-and-a-half years old. However, I have always felt strongly that my job as a parent is not to protect my son from the hard things in life but to help him deal with those things when they come.

In other words, that conversation was hard but I hope it’s the first of many. 

Have you talked to your children about death? How did you tackle it?