How do you talk to your children about death?

Our walk to school every morning takes us alongside a small cricket pitch. Yesterday morning there was a rabbit stretched out on the grass, clearly dead, but nevertheless looking decidedly relaxed.

Belle, who at seven years old is highly sensitive and often slightly melodramatic, spotted the bunny straightaway. “What’s that rabbit doing there Mummy?” she asked, looking concerned.

I then had exactly two seconds to make a decision. Do I tell her it is dead, which will result inevitably in her crying and clinging to me at the school gates telling me she never wants me to die ever ever, or do I lie?

“I think it’s sunbathing,” I said confidently. “It’s a lovely day after all and he looks very relaxed there on the grass.”

She was easily convinced and the conversation quickly turned to how much we liked rabbits out of ten. Belle likes to measure things out of ten, I think she finds it comforting. Phew, I thought, our brush with death was over…

This morning on the way to school though the rabbit was still there. Belle stopped to look at it. Then she looked up at the sky, which was distinctly cloudy, and I could almost hear her brain processing the variables. “Mummy,” she said, her bottom lip starting to tremble, “was it really true what you said about the sunbathing?” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to lie, but I also didn’t want to upset her. Every parent’s daily dilemma.

“Well…” I stalled, “I’m not 100% sure, but shall we pretend it is?”

She thought about it for a while, looking troubled, and then squeezed my hand. “Yes, let’s do that.”

As we walked into school Belle looked at me and said “I wish bunnies belonged to the Queen, like swans. Then they couldn’t die.”

Now I ‘m not sure what to do. I really don’t want to walk past the dead rabbit again tomorrow morning. I’m not sure how long we can pretend he is enjoying the warm weather, especially not now it has started raining. If I had a husband, this would be the point at which I made him go out with a carrier bag and move the corpse into a hedge so that tomorrow I could say ‘Oh look! He’s finished sunbathing and gone home!’ But would that really solve my problem?

I’m not normally squeamish about talking to my children about death – Belle understands that everyone dies, but that doesn’t mean she likes it. Her Great Grandfather died a couple of years ago and, although she was only five and didn’t really know him well, she still talks about him a lot and has asked several times to be taken to the cemetary to ‘spend some time alone with him’.

I know children have to be able to talk about death, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want it lying there in front of us every time we walk to school. We are all going to die, I know that, but sometimes I would quite like someone to come along and hide that thought in a hedge for me…

Photo credit: susanne anette

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29 Comments

  1. 29 April, 2010 / 9:40 am

    Tricky one! I do try and avoid death with DD, aged nearly 4, although with her new fear of flying insects, she announced yesterday ‘I like that bee because he is DEAD’. Boys at nursery apparently play ‘killing’ with pretend light sabres. I did a blog post on not even liking to read old-skool fairytales to her because I didn’t like the amount of death/killing/poison/coffins in Snow White: http://pinchypants.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/snow-white-and-the-seven-warves/
    A friend of mine recommended the ‘circle of life’ approach – being very matter of fact about everything in nature having seasons, being born and dying, but I REALLY don’t want a discussion with DD about her death, or that of her family.

    • 29 April, 2010 / 10:02 am

      Fairytales can be really cruel can’t they? My sister bought Belle the book of the Little Mermaid and it isn’t like the Disney version at all – the Prince marries the other woman and Ariel has to go back and live under the sea without her voice and heartbroken for ever!

    • 29 April, 2010 / 10:48 am

      Yes, although I’m normally all for traditional stories and rhymes, I’m thinking of getting rid of a copy of an old-fashioned book of nursery rhymes, which I’ve discovered has some obscure old rhymes in it which include references to hanging, beating, killing etc. A bit much for your average 3-5 year old I would have thought.

      • 29 April, 2010 / 7:22 pm

        Nothing like a bit of beating and hanging to send your toddler off to sleep!

  2. 29 April, 2010 / 9:49 am

    When my nan died my niece was three. So we told her that Great Nanny had gone to live in the sky and that Nanny and Mummy and Auntie were very sad as we wouldn’t see her again. It was the only thing that she really understood at three.
    Now at eight she vividly remembers that! Since then she has lost her Great Granny on her dads side, two rabbits and two guinea pigs and it is just fact to her that they have all gone to live in Heaven. (She asked what the place in the sky was called once and my mum told her heaven.) They have all gone to live with Great Nanny.
    She tells her brother that its ok because Great Nanny will look after the animals they are with her.
    If you ask her about death, she says that you die, people are sad, they have a party, you live in the sky! She did a school project on it and thats what she wrote. She isnt cruel about it, just very thats it fact, kind of way.

    • 29 April, 2010 / 10:03 am

      I like the idea of everyone living in the sky looking after each other – one of those times when I wish I had any kind of faith!

  3. 29 April, 2010 / 9:50 am

    Hi Jo. I think I’d go with the honesty thing with the rabbit. My O is 5 going on 6 and is also melodramatic and sensitive. When I was seriously ill when he was 3 I struggled with what to tell him about treatment and hair loss and all that stuff. In the end I just told him straight but only with as much detail as he needed at that point. It seemed to work out OK. He still cries about things that upset him – the other day he wouldn’t eat a chocolate bunny because it was too cute and he cried buckets! Belle sounds sweet and sensitive, but it sounds like she trusts her mum and looks to you for guidance. I think you can tell her about the rabbit and say it’s fine to be sad but the rabbit was happy when it was alive or something! I hope this makes sense – feel a bit rambly! xx

    • 29 April, 2010 / 10:05 am

      I think you’re right – I do normally try and be very matter of fact, and she does appreciate death as a natural part of life, but it’s hard isn’t it when it’s right there, espcially when we were already late for school! I think I was most worried about sending her into school upset. Maybe I will pre-empt tomorrow by having a chat with her tonight when we have more time.

      • 29 April, 2010 / 10:24 am

        Oh, let’s hope someone moves the rabbit. You’re right – first thing before school is not a good time. I hope it goes OK – let us know!

    • 29 April, 2010 / 10:51 am

      You have such a lovely sensitive sounding son. My 5 going on 6 year old boy would never dream of getting upset about eating a chocolate bunny – it would just disappear in seconds, and he’d take great delight in biting its head off!

  4. 29 April, 2010 / 9:59 am

    Great post. I’m lucky in the fact that I never had any death questions or upset from my two when they were younger. Maybe it’s cause my dad died when I was 22 and Jake was only 6 months old, so they were told about death quite early. Hope bunny has gone tomorrow, eeeeeek keep us updated. xx

    • 29 April, 2010 / 10:06 am

      I hope it’s gone too! I really don’t want us to get a lesson in decomposition every morning… urgh.

  5. 29 April, 2010 / 10:25 am

    this is timed well for me as I’m trying to explain to my 3 y old & 6 y old about their great grandad who died this morning. My 3 y old thinks he can turn into a superhero and bring him back. My 6 y old cried for about 10 seconds and then seemed fine when I told her.

    It will be interesting how they react at the funeral as that is when it may sink in that great grandpa is the one missing…

    • 29 April, 2010 / 10:31 am

      So sorry to hear about your sad news this morning…

      Belle didn’t actually go to her Great Grandad’s funeral. I don’t know if it will be something that comes back to haunt me as a bad decision, but it just didn’t feel right for her at the time. We did have a smaller ceremony later when we buried the ashes, which she did come to. I think that was important for her as it was a tangible thing – a place where she knew he was going to be and where she could visit.

      Good luck with the funeral xxx

  6. 29 April, 2010 / 11:58 am

    Little Man will be 5 in August and understands death in a child’s way.

    When our cat died 2 years ago, he asked why we were putting Comet in the ground, I explained he had gone to heaven and he understood.
    Another cat, Charlie, was ill last year and it was kinder to have him put down we explained this to him too and he understood in his own way.

    Despite not being certain with faith I like to believe there is a ‘heaven’ for everyone to go to, and that’s what I tell Little Man. If there isn’t then we won’t really know so it makes no odds.

    • 29 April, 2010 / 7:23 pm

      I guess you’re right – if you believe and then there is nothing, you’re hardly going to be standing there thinking ‘well I was wrong about that then…’

  7. hilly
    29 April, 2010 / 12:26 pm

    our cat drags in dead animals every other day, and my girls seem to accept that animals die and thats that. at the health visitors, when she was about 18 months, my youngest pointed to a dead leaf on the floor and said “squeak squeak” as she presumed that anything brown and small on the floor is a dead mouse!

    • 29 April, 2010 / 7:23 pm

      Ha ha! That made me laugh a lot! Very cute.

  8. 29 April, 2010 / 6:39 pm

    Oooh, I’m with you and my first instinct would have been to fib too.. our beloved pet guinea pig went back to live in South America not so long ago *gulp* because I couldn’t bare breaking my daughter’s heart. I know it was to protect me as much as her but I find the whole death thing a tricky one to be honest..

    • 29 April, 2010 / 7:24 pm

      I’m not sure what that says about us that our first instinct is to lie! Oopps.

  9. 29 April, 2010 / 6:46 pm

    When my mum’s spaniel died, and my daughter right there watching it all, we interred the dog with middling dignity in a corner of the flowerbed. Sang “All Things Bright And Beautiful” as dusk closed in and the rain began again. Some daffodils and things were planted over the spot we’d buried her, and a few months later when my daughter suddenly started shrieking about where the dog was now, my wife was able to take her out to the garden to water the flowers. More than anything else it gave her something she could do when she missed the dog – I think that’s the most important thing at that age, some small element of ritual can be enormously comforting. As it happens we’re sort of theists but there shouldn’t be an issue if you’re trying to bring up an atheist as the way in which everything gets returned to the world, to become part of the trees, clouds etc. can be quite beautiful in itself. I always described it to my little girl as a Lego house getting taken apart and put back into the box. It’s not a house any more but it’s never *gone*.

    • 29 April, 2010 / 7:25 pm

      I think you’re right. Belle seemed really comforted after her great grandad died at having a spot in the cemetary for him – somewhere to go and visit him.

  10. 29 April, 2010 / 6:51 pm

    (should add that a few years later someone ran over the cat. This person was hugely upset in front of my daughter and though the kid was disturbed by the sight of a squashed kitty, she was far more thrown by the apparent despair of a previously-infallible grown up. Our humanness is another thing they have to come to terms with I suppose, but it’s probably worth at least bearing this in mind – if we don’t panic, often that’s the only reassurance they actually want)

    • 29 April, 2010 / 7:25 pm

      Absolutely. I did a post a few weeks ago about crying in front of children. I know it hugely upsets my two to see me really upset about something.

  11. 29 April, 2010 / 9:56 pm

    The sweet thing is that she probably does know that Bugs isn’t actually sunbathing, she sounds quite a smart wee thing, and is looking for you to tell her something nicer than it’s just dead! Oh I do hope someone else moved it before you have to walk past it again.

    My daughter’ll just drop ‘Your Dad’s dead eh Mum?’ randomly into conversations quite bluntly which leaves me at a loss of how to respond!

  12. suburbanmummyuk
    30 April, 2010 / 1:43 pm

    You’re better than me. I am “it’s dead” Eliza’s hamster died when we were on holiday last year and her 2nd hamster died last week, we found a dead pigeon in our garden etc. She didn’t cry she just though it was so sad, the thing she hated the most was me putting the hamster in the ground, she couldn’t work that out at all.

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