The pandemic has got me thinking: At what age is it appropriate to talk to my child about death?
The horror of the pandemic has brought up all kinds of issues and questions for parents. Yours is a particularly great and important question, and I am grateful to you for asking as it enables me to share with others.
There is a group of topics that almost always come up for children, usually around the age of 4. “The age of questions” is what I call it. Life will offer your child plenty of prompts for these. So, you don’t have to worry about missing your chance. Just keep your ears peeled.
Truth be told, none of these topics is easy to discuss. And many parents would actually just like to avoid talking about some of them! But remember this, you are your child’s first teacher. You want your child to come to you with all her questions. Better she should hear the age appropriate answers from you right when she asks than learn from someone on the playground. So, take every chance to be the person who tells your child the real story.
Death; Where babies come from; God; money and the cost of things. These are just a few of “those” questions. Death is one that few parents find easy to discuss. It is painful and emotional to think about being eternally separated from your child. After all, that is what death is—the ultimate separation.
Death is one of life’s only certainties. We are all going to die. In fact, everything that is alive will die. On top of that, everything that is alive has a life cycle that includes its own life span. It’s all part of death learning. And there is so much to cover.
When should you begin to talk to your child about death? A while ago.
Children learn about death in the same way they learn about anything—bit by bit. They create in their brains a framework for every concept, adding every mention and experience they have that deals with the topic to their framework. In this case it is death.
So, we begin to build the death framework long before the child is aware of it or has any idea of what it means, before he even has verbal skills. As your 1-year-old toddles along and spies a dead worm on the sidewalk, you say, “That worm is dead; he is not alive anymore.” When roses fall off the bushes, you say, “The rose blossom is dead. It is all done living, so it fell off the bush.” The same is true for the dead fly on the window sill, for the leaves that fall off trees in the fall, for the goldfish you won at the carnival.
Learning about death takes a long, long time. In fact, there are people who spend their whole lives trying to comprehend it. It’s crazy to expect a child to understand death.
And as your child grows, so does his understanding. And the ah-hah moments come: “If everything dies, that means I can die and you can die.” And we explain that people usually live for a long, long time. And I am going to be your mommy for a long, long, long time.
It is typically between the ages of 4 and 6 years that there is a lot of death talk and that death is seen in kids’ play, as they work to process and understand the concept.
While the pandemic sparked your question about when children should learn about death, discussing the possibility of death as a result of contracting COVID is certainly not advisable when dealing with young children. Children older than 7 years likely will hear that some people die as a result of COVID or related illnesses. These children need to be reminded that they are strong, healthy and have a robust immune system. Older people are often not so lucky. It is they and others who are not healthy about whom we worry the most. I believe it is important to emphasize our part in keeping everyone safe and COVID free by following the proper protocol.
The topic of death is so big and so important that I wrote a whole chapter about it in my first book, “Just Tell Me What to Say”: “Why is My Goldfish Floating in the Toilet? Learning about Death.” I cannot possibly do the Death discussion full justice in this column. So, I encourage you and all parents of children 10 years and younger to read this chapter of my book, in particular (to say nothing of the whole book!).
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
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