Talking with Children about Death

Author: Adrian Williams
May 18, 2020

“Why does God let people die?” is one of the questions I admit I still struggle with when watching or reading the news.  Knowing that death tolls and sickness are part of answering questions about masks, being home, and just everything around us right now, I figured this is a good time to address this big question of faith.  When I mentioned that I was going to address this subject, Phoebe told me a story from a friend, who’s little daughter lost her first tooth recently.  The daughter asked her mom to make a mask for the tooth-fairy, because she didn’t want the tooth-fairy to get sick.  “She’s going to come within 6 feet of me, and then she’s going to go visit other kids” the daughter said not wanting to put other people at risk if she happened to be sick. “Anyway, you don’t have anything better to do tonight.” So, mom made her the mask.  It is worth realizing that kids know more than we think they do, but how they put things together can lead to interesting questions and occasionally problematic understandings.

First, we have to admit that we don’t know why God lets people die (or people have to die). This isn’t a place for Calvinist theology, but for understanding that God is often a physical actor in a child’s world.  They need to be reminded that God is not out to get them, or out to get anyone, but that there are things that happen in this world that are beyond our understanding or explanation.

So, once we’ve admitted what we don’t know, we can talk about what we do know. We know that plants die in winter. We know that animals die too. We can understand that this is the way nature works. But it is much, much harder to understand why people die. When someone (or even a pet) dies we have lots of emotions, we may feel terribly sad, or afraid, or even angry. It is okay to feel that way, but we do need to better talk about death to truly help children feel comfortable.

One problematic phrase often used with children is saying someone who has died has “gone to sleep.”  This makes children wonder “So death is like sleeping?”  We need to help children understand that death is nothing at all like sleep. We sleep to rest and stay healthy. You feel good and stronger after sleeping and ready for another day. When someone dies, their body stops working. Their body’s job is complete.

Another misconception many children have about death is that it is a punishment, and this leads to questions both directly about a potential connection, as well as why a certain person (family member, friend) died instead of someone else.  They need to be assured that death is never a punishment. Time or events wear out important parts of our bodies. When after many years or after some sickness a major part of the body stops working, then people die. God has given us wonderfully strong bodies that usually last a long time. No one dies because God is angry with them. A person dies when an important part of their body stops working. Also, sometimes death doesn’t seem fair. Almost everyone will be missed by someone when they die. We almost all wonder, “Why did someone I love have to die?” and we almost never have an answer. But maybe by being together with others who have lost someone we can help support each other.

One of the biggest questions I hear kids ask parents at funerals or after major events is, “When will I (You) die?”  While we do not know how long we will live, we do know that we will not live forever. As we grow older we learn more about living and dying. How long will you live? Probably a long, long time.
This brings us back to the main question: “Why Do People Die?” Dying is a natural part of life. All living things-plans, animals, even people-are special parts of God’s natural world. Like all other living things, though, people’s bodies grow old, break down, and reach the end of life. This is what we call death.
This all may seem very hard, serious, or even taboo to talk about.  We need to remember though that children are learning what it means to be alive, and death is part of that process.  When we make it less than what it is, it can be very confusing to children, leading to nightmares, imagined danger, and an uncertainty as to what is true and not about what they are told.  Sickness and death are real, and giving your child the freedom of understanding can lead to them having much less worry about it in their lives.


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