Random Thought: When is it appropriate to talk to your child about death?

Our family recently received some very bad news.  My step-father, who has been in our lives for 20+ years, was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Realizing that this is a very aggressive cancer, as a family we are coming to grips with this and trying to help him get the care he needs.   We are confident he is in good hands with his doctors (there is a team of them working on his case) but his long-term chances of survival are not good.  We know his time is limited and we are focusing now on his treatments and medical care.

My kids love him.  They call him Joe-Joe Pop.   I don’t know how he does it but every single year he is able to pick out the one simple gift that winds up to be my kids’ favorites.   He is a big fan of “Hess” trucks, airplanes, cars, you name it and he’s quick to buy the year’s featured Hess toy at the beginning of the holiday season for Big Bro.   I do not know how he manages it for Red, but maybe Red just loves her toy from Joe-Joe Pop the best because Big Bro loves HIS toy from Joe-Joe Pop the best.  Anyway, he is loved by my older kids.   And they ask for him.

I remember my first discussion with my mother on the topic of death.   I was five.  Her brother (my favorite, crazy uncle) had died, unexpectantly (he was only 31).   I remember where we were at the time (at the top of the stairs at home) and I remember the words she used.   I think it is etched in my memory because she was upset.  I remember consoling her.   I do remember that notion did not sink in right away.   I remember that I asked for him on several occasions later and that just threw my mom into another crying spell.

I know that I am going to get these kids to see him and talk with him so they have the opportunity to remember him.   And I would like to do this quickly, before his condition deteriorates.  However,  the logistics of where I live complicates things.   I am on the West Coast and my family is on the East Coast (painful, painful, painful to me these days).    So there will be some planning involved.   I’m not sure when this trip should happen — obviously when its best for him — depending on how he feels and where he is with treatments.    But my question is, what do I tell these kids?   What do I say when we leave?   My 5-year-old knows that animals and plants can be “dead”, but we have not talked about loved ones.    When is it OK?   I think it may be OK with my 5-year-old, but with my own history I know that I did not fully “get it”.  So is even 5 too young?

Comments and thoughts appreciated –

– Mama K


  1. Interesting and topical that Kim (my Kim!) pointed me to your page today. Our daughter lost a classmate only last night at the age of 7 to cancer, and I’m anxious to see how she handled the news through school. I’ll post an update as soon as possible…not enough time to put down my thoughts right now. The first time I experienced this was @ 7-8, and it was the 5 year-old boy whose parents rented the second floor of my grandparents home. They asked me to spend time with him while being treated for Leukemia. I remember how eerie it was, but I also remember that I wanted to attend his wake, accompanied by my grandparents. I’ll post more tomrrow.

  2. I think we should be direct and honest with kids, worry sets in when they don’t understand and they become anxious sometimes with the stress of adults. I can remember adults always trying to shelter me from the devastating truth, and perhaps the depth if the situations I was unable to comprehend, but my questions were valid and could have been calmed with a concise and clear answer. There’s no room for fears when your child understands the truth. So, as each scenario presents itself, take the opportunity to provide a life lesson.

    • I completely agree. I have a rule where I do not lie to my kids; and I follow through with everything that I say so that they can learn to completely trust me. Big Bro already talks about death — quite frequently now. About the dinosaurs, about a duck they found at school, etc. He has already said that he will die to but in a long long time [I did not even prompt this discussion] so I don’t know where he gets it – maybe at pre-school or maybe he’s just a reflective little dude. I do plan to talk to them about it but likely not before any trip, unless of course he asks me about it before the trip [they hear EVERYTHING we say]. tHanks for your thougtful feedback

  3. Marsha Kevitch says:

    I was only a year-and-a-half old when my biological father died. My mom and I had nowhere to go, so we moved in with my grandmother and Pop. Needless to say, I was very, very close to them. When Grandmother died in 1990, Krista was almost four years old. I was devastated by Grandmother’s death and I know Krista saw it all over my face when I picked her up at her Nanas’ house. (The Nanas were her wonderful babysitters.) She asked me what was wrong and I told her that Grandmother Gee had died. Krista looked up into Nana Jackson’s face and said, “Are you going to die, too?” Nana Jackson replied, “Yes, honey.. one day.. but not now.” My faith in God has always been a very important part of my life and I explained to Krista that Grandmother Gee was in Heaven.. no longer hurting in the hospital. I really believe that it gave her a lot of comfort. Unfortunately, I can’t remember my conversation with Katie about this. She was 5-1/2 at the time, but the conversation with Krista is the one that stands out in my mind. Joe is in my prayers.

    • THank you for your response. Even at 5 these kids do get it. I remember a similar conversation when I was 5 with my mom. I was more upset about her being upset. But that particular death in the family still impacts me now as an adult and I am almost thankful that my mom respected me enough to share the news and her pain with me then. Joe is having a surgery on Friday and then will likely start radiation/chemo afterwards. I think we’ll all be in better spirits after we put Friday behind us but it will be a tough road for him.

  4. I am not sure that there is an exact age for this discussion. It would depend on the maturity and curiosity of each individual child. I agree with Natalie that a death discussion before the visit may be confusing for your kids and prompt discussions with others. Perhaps you should talk with your kids about the luxury of having family in our lives. Speak about how lucky we are to have our siblings, uncles, aunts and grandparents. It is a subtle reminder to enjoy the ones we love and help them appreciate all the moments that we do have with each other. This way you would be encouraging them to interact and engage your family while they visit and they can hopefully part with loving fond memories of time spent together. Hope this helps

  5. Natalie Scheid Kremsky says:

    I’m so, so sorry. My prayers are with your family. As for Big Bro, keep it simple. I don’t know if I’d discuss death with him before your visit though. Kids have a way of being very blunt and he may say something in front of your step-father that may make you uncomfortable. Of course, you know your own child. I always focused on the soul with my kids. I talk about how the soul never goes away and that is who we truly are. I explain the soul by saying “Do you feel the love inside of you, that’s you, that’s your soul.” I tell them the body is just for carrying that around. I do talk about heaven and say that there is no pain and everyone is the happiest they have ever been. Then, I change the subject as quickly as I can. Be prepared though for the inevitable, when they discover their own mortality or worse, yours. It’s one of the hardest conversations that I’ve ever had with my kids. I’m crying just thinking about it. I tell them to focus on today and be happy we are together. Then I sneak away and pour a BIG drink!

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