An old friend recently reached out to me because her young kids had questions about death, after experiencing the death of a grandparent. She wrote:

“Got any suggestions on how to best explain what happens? They seem to struggle the most with the concept of physical bodies and heaven. He was not buried so they don’t understand things like why the “people in the field of flowers” near Target (a local cemetery) aren’t physically in heaven. I can’t seem to explain the separation of one’s soul from one’s body so that a 4 and 5 year old can understand and not have anxiety about it.”

Image by Jennifer Ditscheit from Pixabay

I was grateful for the opportunity to put some thoughts on paper, and wanted to share them here, too. Here was my response:

Thanks for reaching out with this question.  I think it really depends on the theological perspective you want to offer your kids, but here’s a couple of ways that I think about it:

  • It’s like a balloon filled with air.  When the balloon deflates, the air doesn’t disappear… it joins with all the rest of the air all around us.  A person’s soul is the same kind of thing.  It’s in a body for a while, and when the body dies, the soul joins with the big Soul of God/the Universe/etc. (You could even get a balloon, blow it up, release it, and then ask what happens to the air when the balloon deflates… and then take the conversation from there)
  • It’s like when you make something out of playdough, and it stays like that until you smush it back into the big ball of playdough when you’re done.  We are made to be who we are, and when we die we become part of what will be used to make what comes next.  (Likewise, a demonstration could be really helpful)
  • You could also ask them where they were before they were growing inside you.  Young kids sometimes have great answers to that.  You could then explain that when people die they go back to that same place. (When I asked my 2.5 yr old daughter this question, she responded (as if I was silly for even asking) “Mom, I was everywhere!”)
  • Finally, I’ve loved the book Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie. It is an exquisitely illustrated and simply written exploration about how everything has a lifetime, and that it isn’t a bad thing when someone or something comes to the end of their lifetime.

Talking about death theoretically is connected with, but distinctly different from, helping kids process grief. In that context, I emphasize the presence of the person as part of who we are, through our memories and our love. We tell stories and have photos around the house, and do rituals to celebrate and honor their ongoing presence in our lives.

What other ideas or resources have you found for talking with kids about death?