How to Talk to Kids About Death

As most of you know, Rev. Lynn's mother-in-law died last week. April 9th was also the 9 year anniversary of my late partner's death. His name was Max. Because of this context, I decided it was time to talk to the kids in RE about death and dying, a conversation we have in various ways about once a year.

This time we read the book Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. In this story, Badger's friends reflect on the various skills Badger had shared with them over the years, such as learning to skate, baking recipes, and more. The friends call these "parting gifts" and learn to celebrate and give thanks for these gifts in an effort to ease their sadness of Badger's death.

After the story, the children shared their various beliefs about what happens after death, and I linked each perspective to various religious traditions we celebrate and welcome in our congregations, including Christian ideas about heaven, Buddhist ideas about reincarnation, and Atheist ideas about bodies decomposing and feeding the plants and earth. We also had a lively discussion about cremation and where people spread ashes. After story and discussion time, the children drew pictures of pets and/or people they have lost. Some also drew pictures of where they want their ashes spread (into a volcano was one, and the other was "on the backs of butterflies").

Talking about death with kids can seem overwhelming, but kids have an amazing capacity to confront uncomfortable feelings and process them (often better than adults!!). Our discussion was sad at times, and we listened and witnessed as the kids shared the names and stories of people and animals they had lost. But our discussion also involved smiles and laughter. Most significantly, it was frank. Which leads me to my first tip about talking about death in our "Extending the Lesson" section.

Extending the lesson:

1) It is best to talk frankly about death. Although euphemisms like "passed" seems gentler, they can be confusing to kids. Most experts recommend using blunt language, e.g., "Grandma died." In addition, answer questions about death frankly. Most likely, your kids wants to know what happens to the body when it dies, what is cremation, etc. Separate these discussions from the more open discussion of what happens to your energy/spirit/soul (see #3).

2) Give witness. Let your child share their grief with you or others. This is an important part of the healing process. Things like funerals, eulogies, memorials, etc. can all be important aspects of giving witness and grieving.

3) Discuss what happens to a person's energy/spirit/soul after it dies. I do this by discussing LOTS of different ideas about it, being as nonjudgmental as possible about each as I explain them. And, when asked what I believe, I share that and remind them that they are free to believe what works for them. These spiritual ideas about death are meant to help the living make sense of life. Provided they are not forced on another person, each person should be free to employ the belief that works for them (which relates to UU principles #3 and #4).

4) It is normal for kids to be curious about death, and to talk about it and ask questions about it A LOT. If you've got a kid who needs to talk a lot about death, try not to shut him/her down. If it is too much for you, you can refer your child to me or to Rev. Lynn or other adults in your lives. In addition, you can read books together about death. A few good titles include:

  • The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst

  • The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown and Remy Charlip

  • The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Bascaglia

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