It is very common for 3 and 4-year-olds to ask ‘why’ questions. Preschoolers are curious explorers of the world with an insatiable appetite for new information. A topic that can sometimes catch parents off guard is one of ‘death and dying’. Children naturally want to understand more about this topic and it's natural for them to begin asking lots of questions around this age. If your child has experienced the death of a loved one, they may have even more questions for you. Even a child who has not experienced the death of a loved one is likely to begin asking questions by the time they get to preschool.
When children ask questions about death and dying, sometimes it is hard for parents to know how to answer. There are no “perfect” answers. There’s also not just one way to answer these tough questions. What’s important is to answer their questions honestly, concretely and simply. Children need to trust us to provide them with accurate and truthful information to preserve our relationship and trust with them. It’s also important that we keep in mind their developmental perspective when giving answers. Children at this age need concrete answers because their brains don’t yet have the capacity for abstract thought. We’ve composed a list of common questions children ask, and some possible answers to give that may help you get started.
Mommy, what does ‘dead’ mean?
Try to stay specific and concrete, like you are answering a science question. Avoid euphemisms like “going to sleep” or “pass away” as these statements can confuse and scare children into believing that sleep isn’t safe etc. Be gentle, and remind children that this is a part of the natural life-cycle on earth.
“’Dead’ means a person or animal or even a plant’s life ends. Their breathing stops and their body stops working. It means they don’t feel hot or cold or sleep or eat anymore. All creatures die, it’s a natural part of the cycle of life.”
Is Grandma coming back to eat dinner with us?
Preschool-aged children struggle to understand the permanence of death. Even if you explain it perfectly, it may take them a few years to truly understand. If they are grieving a loss themselves, they also may be engaging in wishful thinking. Try to be clear and concrete but also don’t worry if your child keeps asking this question multiple times. They will understand eventually. Remember that your preschooler needs concrete information about what will happen. This conversation may open up opportunities for you to talk to your little one about your family’s spiritual beliefs as well.
“No sweetie, Grandma isn’t coming back to eat dinner. Her body died and when someone dies they cannot come back to be with us in that same way. We miss her very much, and we will always remember our special times together...
Why is Auntie crying?
When there is a loss in the family, children will likely be observing the emotions and interactions of the adults around them. It’s helpful for children to have words to put with what is happening. Reassure children that emotional reactions are normal and it’s not the child’s job to make people feel better.
“Auntie is crying because she is really sad that Uncle died. It’s normal for people to feel sad when someone dies. I know that Auntie has lots of grown-ups to help her when she feels sad.”
Are you going to die?
Talk about a gut-wrenching question! Most of us adults don't love thinking about death-especially our own. Try taking a deep breath, and remember that this question is normal. Your child has their whole life to wrestle with the existential beliefs around death and dying, but right now your child is asking you a more concrete question, “Can I count on you to be there for me in the future?” The best thing to do is answer honestly and simply. Don’t make promises, but give them information about what is “typical” or what you hope to have happen.
“Yes sweetie, I am going to die one day. Everyone dies, it’s part of the natural cycle of life, but I plan on being around for a long long time. Usually, people don’t die until they’ve lived a long life and have gotten very old. Even when I die, you will always have people around who love you and will take care of you.”
Where does someone go when they die?
When adults ask this question, they are often referring to spiritual or religious beliefs. When children ask this question, they may be asking literally and concretely about the person’s body and what happens after death. It can be helpful to answer these questions concretely. We encourage you to also share your spiritual and religious beliefs with your child as well, in a way that feels right to you!
“That’s a good question. When a person dies, their body stops working. Their body does not feel hot or cold, they do not breathe and their heart does not work anymore. With Grandma’s body, someone will help us turn her body into ashes, and then we will go to sprinkle her ashes in her favorite place. Then her body will go back into the earth.”
Why did my brother die?/Is it my fault?
Children ask ‘why’ about everything, and death is no different. When children ask ‘why’ sometimes they are asking about the ‘how’ of it. They want to know what happened and what caused it. Often they are needing reassurance that they are safe and that it is not their fault.
“That’s a good question. When your baby brother was in mommy’s belly, his heart stopped growing the way it was supposed to. That made his heart stop working so he could no longer keep living or growing in mommy’s belly, and he could not be born.”
“I want you to know that most of the time people and babies can live and grow up just fine, but sometimes, like with brother, it doesn’t happen that way. It was no-one’s fault; not brother's, not mommy’s, not daddy’s and not yours.”
Your child may ask you more questions about the topic, or they may just stop and ask you about snack time. This is all normal. When a child moves on, it could mean that their question was answered, or that they are done talking about a tough topic for now. This is just how children process information. One of our favorite parenting tips is to remember; if you don’t know how to answer a question that feels really important, give yourself more time. You can always say to your child, “Hmmm, that’s a really great question. I’m glad that you asked it. I’m going to think about my answer and get back to you.” There is no parenting rule that says we have to have ALL the answers right away. Just make sure to circle back to your kiddo to offer a chance to talk about it later. Be prepared for play, stories, and art themes around this topic. Children process and make sense of their world through exploration and play as well as lots of questions.
So, be truthful, concrete and simple. Those are our tips. We hope they help you provide some helpful info to your curious young ones.