Teacher's Advice: Talking about Death with Kids

Teacher’s Advice: How to talk to kids about death


This one is a hard subject to talk about. It has always been a hard subject, and will always be. At this time of the year, with all the leaves falling and people putting up decorations of skeletons in their windows, kids have a lot of questions about life and death. I was subbing in a drama class last Friday and the other drama teacher put up yellow police tape on the door, the kind that says “keep out,” as a decoration, and my students had a lot of questions about this tape.

Why is it there?

Did someone die?

Is it just for pretend?

Is it because of Halloween?



I had to spend a good five minutes at the beginning of my class explaining to this group of first-graders that this was just a decoration. But then, one student said something about police using this tape when someone dies, and the conversation changed drastically. I didn’t want to spend a full lesson talking about death, even more so considering I was only subbing that day, but sometimes you don’t have any other choice but to talk about it. So here’s what I suggest you keep in mind when talking about death with children.


1. Tell the truth

I don’t think it's nice, or fair, to tell children that people “went on a long trip,” “went away forever,” or “are in a better place.” Children take everything you say literally. If you tell them that the person went away or went on a long trip, they will think the person is somewhere, like in Cuba, and won’t understand that they are, in fact, dead.

I also don’t like using the phrase “in a better place.” No one knows for sure what happens after we die. Everyone has their own beliefs, but no one has come back from the dead to tell us exactly what happens. Saying that what happens after is better than what is happening now insinuates that life on Earth is hard, but you will be rewarded afterwards. Although that’s a pleasant thought, we can’t know that for sure, so I recommend just telling the truth.

Children are very quick to understand the concept of death. They have seen bugs die, animals, and sometimes they even have family members that passed away. They understand the difference between alive and no longer alive. Keeping it clear, simple but truthful is, I believe, the best policy.



2. Don’t be specific when it comes to the “after”

Like I said before, no one can be sure what happens after. Everyone has beliefs, some are religious and some are more personal, but we have no proof of what happens, it’s all based on faith. Considering that not all students in a classroom share the same religion or the same beliefs, I recommend not going into details about what happens after. If you mention heaven, or reincarnation, you might confuse those who have been told other things. If you say that nothing happens, you might scare your students, because children don’t like the concept of nothingness. Just say that everyone has different beliefs, but we can’t know for sure what will happen.



3. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”

As adults, we often want to give children explanations for everything. Why is the sky blue? Why are my eyes brown and not yours? Where does the moon go during the day?

But for questions like “What happens when we die?”, “Will we see again those who have already died?”, “Will it hurt?”, for those questions no one has answers, only beliefs.

Saying "I don’t know" in this situation is very much ok. Learning about death is also learning about the fact that we, as humans, don’t have all the answers. It can be hard to not provide an answer, but it's more truthful this way.



4. Respect their feelings

Some kids are very afraid by the idea of death, others don’t really care. Some are a little obsessed with it, and others don’t seem to care all that much. In any case, make sure to respect each person’s feelings and thoughts about the matter. Don’t force any emotions on them when it comes to death. In some cultures, death is a sad thing, and in others it’s a celebration of life. Some families talk about death, and others don’t, and all of these different thoughts and all feelings about this subject are valid.

Children don’t need to understand everything right away, and they may need time to understand fully what it means to die, but everyone takes it at their own pace.



5. Encourage them to talk about it with their family

If they have more questions, encourage your students to talk about it with their family. For subjects like death, it’s important to remember that not every family talks about it the same way. There is no better person to answer a child’s questions about death than their parents, because they share the same religion, culture, and will know what their child is ready to understand. Don’t overstep your role as an educator, you don’t have all the answers, and that’s ok. Just remind your students that talking about it is all right and that it’s natural to be curious about death.



My final recommendation to all of you is to be careful during times like Halloween to not force a narrative of death on children. There are so many elements of Halloween that bring up questions in their young minds about what happens after we die (zombies, ghosts, skeletons, etc.) and Halloween doesn’t have to always be about that. It can also just be nice to dress up as a dinosaur and eat candy.


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