When do Children Understand Death?

Death is “part” of our lives, yet talking or writing about it is always very hard.



Today’s society tries to place itself as far from the last moment of life as possible: we don’t want to face being old, passing away, it just doesn’t fit todays look on life.

Since I have had kids, two close members of our family have passed away. When my father in law died I only had two children: Big Boy was three years old and Big Girl was three weeks old. One of the most scary diseases took my father in law away, lung cancer. We were with him during the two years that he suffered from the disease, we saw his health and physical state get worse, we lived through the good and the bad with him. BigBoy knew that Grandpa was sick, but his little mind could only take in this much. When the end was near, we tried to prepare him for the passing away of Grandpa, but thinking back now, I don’t know if he realized at all what was happening.

Then, I thought it was best for him to not come to the funeral. He was very young (he was always an energetic kid, I didn’t know how he would react to an unusual setting, the sight of lots of sad, crying people), and on top of this, we were in the middle of the why-era: I was scared that with his constant questions he would disturb the grievers. I don’t know why, but after the funeral I expected him to ask me a ton of questions and look for the one that passed away…but to my biggest surprise it didn’t happen this way. He didn’t talk about it at all for a very long time. He didn’t ask anything, he didn’t talk about his grandpa or speak about him to anyone. After long months, he asked:

– Is there life after death? Where is Grandpa’s body, what is he doing right now? Will you also die? What will happen to me when I am left alone in this world?




These were heavy, hard questions, I saw that he was honestly frightened, there was true fear in his eyes. He was not yet four years old, when we had to explain to him, that life comes to an end, and this moment comes in everyone live’s now or later. While I was talking, I could almost see his brain trying to process the words and sentences I was saying. I was trying to answer the questions honestly, but I let him control the conversation. When his speech came to an end, he calmed down a little bit, however, he was truly surprised that us, his parents will also die once, and we won’t be with him forever. How time works was still unclear to him: the far future, 40-50 years from now was very hard to imagine for him.

The kind and beautiful memories about Grandpa only came back later, but then, he talked about them in such detail like they happened yesterday. By the time he turned 6-7 years old, these faded, and now he has no factual memories, but somewhere hidden in his heart/brain, his grandpa is still there: for a movement or a sentence the past comes up.

BigGirl thinks completely different about death and passing away. For her, this is a completely natural thing, that is a part of life. I don’t know where this bravery and mental maturity comes from, but ever since she was a child she has thought about this topic with an incredible wiseness.

In her, there is no such fear as what sometimes strikes BigBoy. BigGirl was 8 when she first faced that life eventually comes to an end, when her great-grandmother died.

She was very weak and sick towards the end of her life, it was not easy living with her. The kids did not really want to be near her, because they didn’t know how to handle her properly – sadly, this resulted in many conflicts in the family. Her death did not come as a surprise to any of us.

There we had the big question again: from our 5 kids, how many should we take to the funeral. The oldest two came along, MiddleOne, Fourth and LittleOne stayed at home. BigBoy’s and BigGirl’s outlooks on life proved to be very different yet again: our son couldn’t really handle the situation – he was poky and scared at the same time – our daughter on the other handed, experienced the tragedy with her whole heart without being afraid of passing away.

The smaller ones asked tons of questions at home, they wanted to know everything: who cried, who didn’t, what clothes were people wearing, what did we do beforehand, during and after the funeral, what it feels like to be in a cemetery, was great-grandma also there (this was asked by the then four year old Four). After the storm of questions stopped, everything went back to normal, the kids tried to cope with certain situations, and us, adults, drew the consequences:


  • Every child is different and therefor handles the question of death differently (is afraid of it, makes him curious, doesn’t care/doesn’t deal with it)
  • Even during the time of a tragedy, we have to stay honest, we can talk about everything according to the child’s age, there are no taboos
  • We must not strengthen the fear, but we shouldn’t put an unrealistically ideal picture in the child’s head either
  • When talking to the child, religion is a basis: if you don’t believe in afterlife, then don’t talk about it at all, if you do, explain it to the child
  • We have to let the kid control the conversation about death, his questions should lead
  • Us, parents shouldn’t initiate a conversation about passing away, we should let the child bring it up when he wants to


Heavy questions, tough answers, that every parent has to face once.

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