Explain Death to a Child

books motherhood personal-chronicles reflections upbringing

Lately, my child and I have been talking about death a lot. Honesty is at the heart of my parenting method, so I keep looking for a way to explain death to a child, to a four-year-old child, so that it is honest, but simple enough, so that it is simple, but complex enough to convey what I think about it myself. How can it be that St.Nicholas is dead but the miracles are alive? Children are different and constantly changing, this should be taken into account.

Death in Ukrainian culture

How to Explain Death to a Child
Photo: Trym Nilsen

I don’t remember anyone ever talking to me about it since I was a child. I remember the death of my great-grandmother, how sad I felt because everyone who gathered around her was so sad. I remember the death of a classmate, and again everyone was sad, and I was desperately trying to cheer them up, but without success – for some reason, everyone was convinced that it’s necessary to be sad, and their sadness still doesn’t seem natural to me.

I remember the untimely notification of the death of my grandfather (on the day of the entrance exams) and the uncertainty of what to feel, the death of the second grandfather and the inappropriate words of my relative that I was the only one who loved him; my aversion to the tradition of putting a dead body on the table, kissing it, burying it in the ground in an ugly coffin, granite slabs, plastic wreaths, metal bars, the cult of food around – wakes at the same table, offering food to the dead on Easter – what an apt way to make death sad and disgusting, I refuse to participate in it.

As a person with a long history of suicidal thoughts, who held on to the idea that to die is to give up, to not be able to cope with yourself, not to see what will happen next, that this is not an option (I was clinging to the belief in reincarnation), I was truly sad only about suicides, because of the familiar pain, which a person chose not to feel anymore, and because their struggle was extinguished.

I also cannot imagine how it’s possible to survive the death of loved ones who died too young, violent or unnatural death, it’s sad because it’s way too unfair. It seems to me that in order to be able to really be close to a person who is going through such a loss, it’s precisely important to have an adequate attitude towards normal death, to talk about it even when such questions arise for the first time. Mom, are you going to die? I don’t want you to die. I don’t want to die. How to explain death to a child?

How I want my child to perceive death

How to Explain Death to a Child
Photo: Paul Hanaoka

The way I explain death to a child is I start from the idea that nothing is taken from anywhere and doesn’t go anywhere, that the death of the body is not a tragic event, but only a transition to another state, that nature is cyclical, that we don’t vanish. That when a person or an animal dies, they are reborn into something else, and a tree can be planted on their remains. I dream that this method of burial will become the most common, as well as the practice of organ donation, which can save someone’s life. Of course, all this can be a bit too much for a four-year-old child, so it’s worth first finding out why they are so interested in death, what is it about for them first of all, depending on the age, these can be different things.

My child, at the age of 4.10, is primarily concerned not to be abandoned, not to be left alone. We talk about death as a loss, but I see it more as a fear of loneliness, because loved ones are few and hard to find. He also dislikes the idea of disappearing and “being someone else” (I still can’t convey this idea), therefore, identity is important to him. The idea that in case of my death there will be other people who will take care of him turned out to be more important than the idea that I will not go anywhere and will float somewhere in the air or live in his heart, the child is interested in more practical things.

Explain death to a child through the books

Of course, I was looking for books to help me, but I found only three that could help with my ideas and needs.

Svitlana Roiz – The secret of life and death

Svitlana Roiz - The secret of life and death
Svitlana Roiz – The secret of life and death, VSL Publishing house, 2021

Psychologist Svitlana Roiz normalizes death – it’s a part of life, nature, process. If you think about it, language itself adapts things for us – “i’d rather die”, “I’m dying of hunger”, etc. The topic of death is also a chance to talk about emotions, the body, health, caring for each other, etc.

Brian Lees – Fox Timko and his garden

Brian Lees – Fox Timko and his garden, A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA Publishing house, 2019

Tymko’s dog died. He suffers the loss with all its sadness, rage and reluctance to live on. He gives vent to his emotions and finally finds a thread of hope to live on. Extraordinary illustrations.

Christina Nguyen – Stories about Pandimoon

In one of the three stories in this book, Pandey loses a friend, but the friend remains forever in his heart.

Special effects are visible through the screen (instagram)

The power of the book is that it offers augmented reality. As if death is beautiful. And I mean, it may be. By the way, the book has a sequel – “New stories about Pandimoon“.

Everyone we remember stays with us.

We recognize them because of the warmth they share.

Christina Nguyen – Stories about Pandimoon

As a summary

As in everything, the child’s perception of the topic by those to whom they are most attached is important. If they are afraid, therefore, you should be afraid, if they avoid the topic, then maybe you should be wary, if they don’t know and don’t try to learn, then maybe critical thinking is not valuable. Listen, search for answers together, contain emotions, at the level where the child is right now.

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