Explaining death & dying to small children. I used to feel like the word “dead” hung awkwardly in the air whenever I said it in the presence of my daughter, Zoey. In time, I realized there was no getting around this word or its meaning and I shouldn’t be afraid to use it. Death is a part of life and I couldn’t shield her from this fact forever. When Zoey was about 3-1/2 years old, a dying monarch butterfly gave me the confidence to broach this topic with her.
She and her dad found the butterfly near our house and they brought it home to stay on our balcony. We named her “Princess Butterfly” and cheered her on, willing her to graciously fly away, but then Zoey lost interest. The next morning I found the butterfly still, her wings flat on the ground and quite obviously dead. Instead of sweeping it away, I decided to use this opportunity to explain death and what comes after that to Zoey.
I told her that the butterfly’s body had stopped working and what had made Princess Butterfly, “Princess Butterfly,” had gone to Heaven. I said that up in Heaven she was able to fly again. I explained that we needed to bury her. We used one of Zoey’s shovels to dig a small hole in the ground. I placed Princess Butterfly in what would be her final resting place and let Zoey cover her with dirt. I asked Zoey to say something she liked about Princess Butterfly. She said she liked her wings. Then we blew a kiss up to the sky. She was too young to really understand the never coming back aspect of death, but this was a starting point.
So, here are some “How-To’s” that I hope will be helpful for other parents as they approach this sensitive, yet important, topic with their own children.
Finding an insect (like a butterfly), as an example of something that lives and dies is a good place to start the conversation. When you come across a bug (or something that your child isn’t emotionally attached to) that is dead or dying, take a moment to talk about it with your child. Maybe even name the bug. Then use it to explain the process of dying. In your own words, you can explain that death is a part of life and that our bodies get sick or old and stop working. Hold a mock funeral and bury the bug. Let your own spiritual beliefs guide you in how to explain what happens to us after we die.
This way they already have a handle on things they will be seeing. Remind them of the bug’s funeral. Tell them that there will be a casket in front of the room and that people will talk about their deceased loved one. Make it known that people may laugh or cry as they remember the person and that it’s okay to do both. If they will go to the gravesite, explain that the casket will be moved there and will eventually be buried, like the bug they buried. Let them know a cemetery is a place where people can go to remember someone and leave flowers.
Don’t elaborate, unless they ask you to. For example, when Zoey asked me what happened to the bodies in the ground, I told her they just stayed there in the casket. That was enough of an answer for her. I didn’t want to put scary images in her head and left decomposition out of the conversation. This was best for Zoey, at age four, but based on your child’s age, discussing this may be appropriate. As your child’s parent, you will know what information your child is ready for.
Tell them it’s okay to miss the person that is gone. Ask them to share what they liked best about their loved one. Talk about good times that they experienced together and what memories they might have. Look at pictures if you have them.
The last thing you want is for your child to be afraid that they or you will die. It’s a natural response for them to have, but don’t let them be frightened. Hug them, ease their worries and let them know they have many more years before they need to worry about dying.
This will most likely be an ongoing conversation that will get more complex as they get older. Ultimately, we all just want our kids to feel safe and loved.
At each of my grandmother’s funerals, Zoey and I blew a kiss up to the sky. It was a great moment and it was then that I truly felt like I was getting this whole “death” thing right.
My first experience with a funeral was for my brother’s rat that died. My own rat died shortly after his and I remember her funeral pretty vividly even though I was probably just 6 or 7. My rat, Penny, had a favorite blanket (towel really) that she’d nibbled some holes in. I cut the blanket in half and wrapped Penny in the un-chewed half and kept the nibbled bits for myself as a thing to remember her by. My dad gave me a wooden box to bury her in and he let me write her name and a little epitaph on the box. We buried her in the front yard and I know someone, probably my dad said a few words. It was wonderful, and although I was sad, I felt that she had been honored and that all the people that mattered to me had showed me & her they cared about us.
I LOVE your blog here, the tips you have and ESPECIALLY that you held a funeral for Princess Butterfly and encourage people to do the same. Great idea!! Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful advice & giving others the courage to talk to their kids about hard stuff.
Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to write this blog and be a part of your blog! Once I came across Princess Butterfly everything fell into place and it made explaining the hard stuff so much easier.
Welcome, Trisha. The blog was beautiful. Having lost both my parents around the age of 5 and several aunts and my remaining grandparent in the next couple of years, I felt I was an old hand at death at a young age. I knew that my mama was in heaven and it was just her body in the casket in our front room where people came to call in those days. It didn’t take away the ache in my little heart, but I learned to cope with reality and what was on my little plate.
You will do great with your kids. You have the ability to put yourself in their little head and see things from their size.
Bless you as you mother.
Thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry you had to deal with losing so many people at such a young age. I can’t imagine how difficult that must’ve been. I love what you said about being able to put myself in my children’s heads and see things from their size. I try and do that everyday. Really I find it quite easy to do as it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was their size!