Talking to Kids About Death Need Not Be Depressing


For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter of my book dealing with death. A cheery subject, I know, but an important one —  given that death is a primary reason religion exists at all.

My goal is to make death an easier topic for parents to explore with their kids. What should parents say, and when should they say it? How can they help children cope with the idea of death without the comforting arms of religion.

So far, my research involves reading lots of books with titles about death, dying, mourning and loss. You can see why I put this chapter off for so long. As it turns out, though, the research is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. In fact, it's felt quite liberating — the way it often does when you confront things that scare you.

I’ve also begun showing kids' books on the subject to my daughter, Maxine  — who, at 6, seems to be at the perfect age to have these discussions. It's been fun to gauge how she reacts, what questions she brings up, and how comfortable I am answering them.

The most successful of the books I've found so far is When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. It's a children’s book that explains death in plain, honest terms. Maxine showed an immediate interest in the book, and wanted to read it very slowly so she could carefully consider each picture. She did ask questions, although none were out of the ordinary:

“What’s wrong with him?” she asked, pointing to a man lying in a hospital bed.

“Why is she mad?” she said about a girl who was working through feelings of anger after her grandfather died.

“What is that thing?” she asked when we got to a page featuring a coffin.

When Dinosaurs Die seems to be aimed at kids who have gone through a recent loss, but it's also perfectly well-suited as an introduction to death for kids who've not yet been struck by personal tragedy. You might think it a bit morbid at first, but it's actually very refreshing to talk about something so basic to human nature, and to treat it as just another subject.

The book doesn't pull back in the ways you might think, either. I was impressed, for instance, that the author touches on suicide and murder. I’m not sure I would have thought to mention those especially gritty sorts of deaths. But the fact that she does, and the way she does it, is just excellent.

Other than the title, which sounds a bit too much like a book on dinosaur extinction, the book is great for anyone with kids ages 5 to, let's say, 9 or 10ish. Okay, now your recommendations. Got any?