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What Does “Died” Mean?: How to Approach Tough Questions About Death with Your Little Ones

Updated: Jan 25

“Mommy, Josh was so sad today. He said his cat died. What does ‘died’ mean? Why was Josh so sad? What happened to his cat - is it sick?”

“Ms. Erica is not coming to school tomorrow. She has to go to the funeral. She looked upset and I don’t think she wants to go. What’s a funeral?”

“Grandpa, why is Mr. Goldfish swimming upside down?”

These can be hard questions to answer, especially when they catch you off guard. It’s a natural part of life that all kids are exposed to eventually. And we need to be able to have open conversations about it, if only to ask the questions and feel the feelings.

When your child approaches you with these questions - well first, don’t panic. Then, ask them what they think it could mean. Be prepared for a variety of responses and don’t be avoidant. It’s a difficult time right now and it’s important that they feel like you’re being honest with them. When you do avoid the subject and start skirting around it uncomfortably, that’s when it becomes scary and naturally, they’ll only become more inquisitive.

Information is like a light in a dark tunnel. Telling a child to avoid that tunnel because it’s too dark may even start a fascination with it or a bunch of unknown feelings around it. And the next time it comes up in their lives, all those unresolved questions and feelings will come out bigger and more complicated. To build on their question, asking them how they feel and what they think about it so far. Don’t avoid using the words dead or died - this helps little ones grasp this very abstract concept.

Read books and discuss it with them. Ask them how they are feeling while you are reading and discussing. Maybe they relate to the character in the story and let them know it’s ok to be sad or feel hurt. Remind them that grown-ups have these big feelings too.

The most important lesson here is that death is something all living things experience - from flowers to bugs and even people, but we celebrate them by sharing our memories of the time we shared. Children often don’t need all the details. It’s a hard concept to process, even for adults, as you know. You don’t need to have all the answers! Because you kind of don’t, right? Being honest about that makes you more relatable and helps them understand that learning is a life-long experience. Focus on reassurance and helping them express their feelings in a positive way. If they’ve already displayed their little personality by using a certain means of self-expression like art or dance or games, guide them back to that and explain how things like that help us cope.

Here are some books to help:

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

(does mention heaven once, discusses separation in general as well)


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