How Do You Explain Death to Children?

My mother-in-law’s loving little cocker spaniel, Sadie, died this week. She was 10-years-old and had some health problems. But even though it was not a surprise, saying good-bye to a pet is always hard. My family is still mourning the loss of the family retriever, Max.

As I was thinking about Sadie and my mother-in-law, I then started thinking about Sophie and what I’m going to say next time we visit Nana (aka mother-in-law) and she asks where Sadie is.

What do you say? How do you explain a concept like death to a 3-year-old when it’s hard enough for an adult to grasp? Or do you even go there?

When Max died earlier this year, my childcare provider gave me a few tips. She encouraged us NOT to say Max got sick and went away, or Max is asleep and not coming back. Because to a toddler, they may remember that phrase next time mommy or daddy is sick and think we’re not coming back. Good point. I hadn’t thought of that.

She suggested thinking about what Bryan and I believe with respect to death and start talking in those terms. So talking about God or heaven. But truth be told, I’m not sure what I believe in that respect. So I didn’t want to tell Sophie something that wasn’t solidified with me yet.

Which brings me back to the original question, How do you explain death to children?

Fortunately for me, Sophie never asked about Max and where he went. So I skirted that issue for a while. And she’s yet to really understand what happened to Bambi’s mom or ask my why Wilbur is crying for Charlotte. But I’m sure she will ask about Sadie at some point; certainly the next time we go to Nana’s house.

I guess having children really forces you to seriously examine your own belief system. I want to be honest with Sophie. I don’t want to scare her, yet don’t want to sugar-coat life either. I guess the first step is being honest with myself and digging into what death means to me.

Have any of you dealt with this issues? How do you talk about death with your children?

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