How to Respond to Typical Questions
that Children Have about Death
By Robin Fiorelli
Answer a child's questions about death by being specific, straight forward, and brief. Be sure to address the child at his or her level.
Children usually can absorb only bits of information at a time-so it is important to pay attention to their cues. Checking to see if a child has understood what has been said also is critical. Adults unsure of the meaning behind a child's question should probe further by asking what the child meant or what the child knows about the topic. Children often repeat the same questions merely as a way to assimilate the answers. It also is OK for adults to tell the child they do not know the answer to a question.
Some of the most common questions children ask are:
Why did Daddy die?
It is important to probe further to assess whether the child is asking this question because he or she feels sad, angry or guilty about the death. If so, it is imperative to allow the child to express those thoughts and feelings. The child should be reassured that death does not seem fair. It may also be that the child is asking about the physical process of death.
When is Mommy coming back?
It is OK to tell a child in a gentle, loving way that people who die do not come back-as much as the child may want Mommy to come back, she can't because she is dead. It sometimes is reassuring for a child to know that he or she always can hold onto his or her feelings and memories about the loved one, and in that way, the loved one always will be with them. It also may be reassuring for children to know that they will not always feel so sad about their loved one being gone.
Where is Daddy now?
Before answering this question, it is helpful to know where the child thinks Daddy is. The adult's response would then be based on that belief. If the child believes Daddy is in heaven, because that is the family's spiritual belief, then that belief should be validated. In addition and to minimize confusion, it might be helpful to remind the child about the burial, that the loved one was placed in a casket underground, for example.
Will you die too?
It is important when answering this question to give reassurance and support-but also to answer honestly. An example would be: "I will die sometime, but I hope to be here a long time yet. I do not have any serious illnesses." Sometimes when a child asks this question, he or she is afraid of losing another loved one. A clarifying question might be, "Are you worried that I won't be here to care for you?"
How long will I live?
A good response might be that no one knows how long he or she will live, but that no one lives forever. The child should be reassured that most people live until they are old, and that many old people are not worried about death.