Talking About Death With Young Kids: A Beginner’s Guide

via Ashia
wolf pack in mourning
[Image description: Illustration from ‘The Wolf Birds,’ by Willow Dawson. Three wolves stand over a dead pack member lying in the snow, as a rabbit watches from afar.]

Death-positive basics about life cycles, death, and comforting physics for toddlers through early elementary.



How To Talk About Death With Little Kids

 

Yes – you do need to talk about death with your toddlers and preschoolers.

Not just because a loved one could drop dead at any moment and you’ll be floundering to explain the basics. But because to discuss any of the things we talk about here – discrimination, oppression, courage, generosity, and so on, they have to understand what’s really at risk.

We want our kids to contemplate their own death, your death, and the death of a beloved pet hamster. Paying attention to the fact that this will end is vital – keeping all the rest of this stuff in perspective.

How to start talking about death

Starting around age 2, I taught my kids about living and non-living things so they would have a clearer understanding of what it means to be dead. From there, we discussed life cycles, birth, and the food chain.

This made it much easier to discuss the death of a pet, and later, a family member. Creating a narrative foundation to ground themselves in grief and confusion started with a fundamental idea of what it means to be alive, which was a positive and empowering experience.

The following books are secular, not faith-based (topics like afterlife, judgement, reincarnation, and such, aren’t addressed here). While they lean toward science and the physical, they are inclusive and open enough that they can be used by most families of faith alongside many religious understandings of death.

These books also tend to be death-neutral, and some are even death-positive. Death is a natural part in the cycle of life, it’s a healthy element of generational flux and evolution, and healthy prey/predator/scavenger relationships are beneficial to the ecosystem.

After these foundational books, we’ll tackle more complicated topics, like grief, the death or terminal illness of a loved one, and how to comfort anxious kids who are nervous they or someone they live might die. But those are for later – so sign up at the top of the page for email notifications if you want to know when they’re ready.


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Basic Foundations – Living & Non-Living

Before we even start talking about death, kids need to understand what it means to be alive.

Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow?, What’s Alive, Are You Living

Ages 3+

Ages 2+

Ages 3+

 


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Death As A Natural Part Of The Life Cycle

The Wolf Birds shows how the death of one animal can keep many others alive, which makes it both a harsh and beautiful story. Sophie’s Squash celebrates and accepts the death of a beloved squash named Bernice – and Bernice’s transition into a vine that creates new life. Big Cat, Little Cat gives kids a bittersweet introduction to generational narrative – how one cat can share their wisdom and joy with the young, passing the torch as this joy continues over generations.

Other good didactic books on the life cycle of plants (not pictured), include Pumpkin Jack and From Beginning To End.

Ages 4+

Ages 3.5+

Ages 3+


You Might Also Like: Where Babies Come From – Inclusive Kids Books About Sex & Reproduction


Comforting Books For Science-Minded Kids

We’re nerds, so the idea of the conservation of mass and energy comforts us. Helping my kids understand that the stuff that makes them up now has always been, and will always be – and that stuff will continue to mix and mingle, together, forever. (I think? Don’t correct me if not, IT’S COMFORTING.)

These books work regardless of whether or not you believe a non-physical spirit lives on, and allows kids to see that we are still connected, even through death (through physics!)

You Are Stardust, The Stuff Of Stars

 



Next Up: Comforting Kids After The Death Of A Pet

I’m working on it now – sign up for email notifications at the top of the page, and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.



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3 observations

Amber November 12, 2018 - 9:42 PM

the day we lost pet is a BEAUTIFUL picture book…

Reply
Ashia November 13, 2018 - 10:20 AM

Wow this looks gorgeous! Thank you for this recommendation, I can’t wait to check it out.

Reply
Helen December 12, 2019 - 2:29 PM

The Rough Patch is a great one about the loss of a pet. Especially for those who understand anger is a part of grieving.

Reply

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