Children's Questions About Death - And What To Answer

14/08/2014 16:54 | Updated 22 May 2015

five years boy and his mother   ...

My son is obsessed with death. Well, perhaps obsessed is slightly too melodramatic but something has piqued his curiosity about the state of not living.

I thought it was going to be a passing phase of curiousness, a bit like what the other planets are called, or why there are holes in bagels, or how cars are made.

I can see where all these questions come from: a topic they are covering at nursery, or a thought sprung from watching his toasted bagel spin merrily on his finger:

"Mummy, why do bagels have holes in them?"

"I don't know. But I am pretty sure it is not so you can spin your breakfast round your finger. Put it down please."

"Mummy, why is all the jam spinning off?"


"Mummy, why are you looking cross?"

But the questions about death just keep coming and I am really not sure the best way to answer them. I am the (un)fortunate mix of British, middle classed and an atheist, which means I have a cultural bias to not want to talk about it, an urge to give my son the full and frank knowledge he needs to understand the world around him, and the inability to talk about Heaven and twinkly gates (I may be missing the nub of talking about death in Christian terms, granted).

So what is the best way to explain death to a four-year-old?

On an early attempt, I somewhat foolishly tried the biological route. This makes it sound premeditated: it would be more accurate to say that I fell into this strategy. I talked about how the heart stops beating, and then that person is dead.

"Why do you die if your heart stops?"


Blimey, this is the thing about kids' questions. It's not so much like opening a can of worms, more like ripping open a large container to find a congregation of hungry alligators inside, all licking their lips and salivating profusely.

So after a quick lesson on how the body works, made all the more hasty by the fact that once I had told him that the heart pumps blood to all of the important bits in the body to make them work, that was my recall of O Level biology pretty much exhausted. (I blame Miss Robinson, our biology teacher. She kept leaving us for whole lessons to read the text book whilst she snuck off for a drink. I learned precious little biology, but boy, can I make a mean paper aeroplane).

"How long does the heart stop for before you die?" came the next question.

"Errr..." Can I phone a friend? No, I shall deploy the well-used strategy of desperate, knowledge-poor parents everywhere, by passing off guesses as facts. So having asserted that it takes four minutes, I started to talk about what we could have for tea. Distraction, I felt, was my only option at this point.

"Can your heart start again?" At this juncture, there was only one sane response: no. So what did I say? "Sometimes it can, yes."

There was a gnashing of teeth as those hungry alligators crept nearer.

And so the conversation went on, me getting deeper and deeper into death territory, stumbling around the topic like a drunk uncle at a wedding who can't keep his mouth shut, with everyone around him knowing it is only a matter of minutes before he says something wholly inappropriate.

I am very mindful that I do not want to give the poor boy nightmares. And I might be more concerned that nightmares would mean more interrupted nights of sleep for me, but I couldn't possibly confirm or deny this.

So what should I say in answer to those questions about dying?

I spoke to Alison Thompson, the Children's Service and Development Manager at Cruse Bereavement Care, for some sensible, informed advice, something, it appears, that is in short supply in my house.

Alison said that what to say to a young child about the death of someone they know is the most asked question by people who call their helpline.


Research has shown that from about the age of three, kids are aware that death happens, and by five, they realise that once dead, a body can't move. From six, children understand that death is irreversible, and by seven, that death happens to everyone.

But this does not stop the questions, and some, Alison tells me, can be quite hard to take for parents, what with a child's natural ability to tell it just like it is. Questions such as 'how long will granddad take to rot?' can send a parent reeling, but is just part of a child's natural curiosity and way of processing what is going on around them.

It seems arming yourself with the facts, however grim, is a sensible approach.

So Alison's top three pieces of advice when death casts its shadow over your conversation with your little one?

1. Be as honest as you can, explaining things in simple terms that your child will understand...

2... and don't fall into the trap of using euphemisms. The British love a good euphemism to gloss over all that horrible reality and to spare our blushes. But telling your child that granddad has 'gone for a long, long sleep' or 'has gone to Heaven' will only prompt the inevitable questions of: 'how long before Granddad wakes up?' and 'Can we get a bus to Heaven so I can see Granddad?'

3. Allow your child to explore grief with you, but let them do it in their own way. Kids do not have the emotional reserves that adults have had a lifetime to build up, and their emotional capacity to feel grief can be limited. Which is why they can be sad one minute, and then running around the garden whooping the next.

It can be difficult for adults, for whom grief is a consistent presence, to witness their child bouncing up and down on the trampoline with glee, but this is an essential part of their grieving process.

And as always, I muse, after my conversation with the experts, I should worry less about frightening the pants off my son. I think I may have assumed my trepidation of death was at the root of my four-year-old's questions, when in a subsequent conversation the motivation for his prolonged curiosity became clear:

"Mummy. If I die, will I still be able to hold a fork?" After all that, all that he was really concerned about was if he was going to miss his lunch.

For more information about Cruse Bereavement Care visit and for bereavement support for anyone affected by bereavement, call the helpline on 0844 477 9400.

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