How Do You Teach Kids About Death?

How Do You Teach Kids About Death?

On the weekend, one of my daughters’ pet chickens did something particularly inconvenient: it dropped dead. Overnight, it went from being a hale and hearty hen to KFC for worms. She didn’t even do us the courtesy of acting sick first. I was therefore forced to explain to my daughters on the spot that “Patty” wasn’t a member of the family anymore. Instead, she was food.

Now, my daughters have already steeled themselves to the inevitability of death. In their short lives they have experienced the passing of family members — both young and old — and consequently have a better grasp of mortality than most kids their age.

In fact, they barely batted an eyelid after discovering her twisted carcass under the house. They just wanted to help with the digging.

Nevertheless, I found it difficult to convey to them that Patty wasn’t around any more. Just how do you put this sort of thing into words? Are you supposed to give a speech? Hold a mock funeral? Invite relatives around? I suppose it depends on how valued the pet is. A chicken falls somewhere between gold fish and annoying auntie, so I didn’t put too much effort in. A cat or dog would be a different story.

I ended up mumbling some crap about how Patty was a good chook and then we all patted the earth down. Within minutes, they were all happily playing like nothing had happened. No harm, no fowl. Or so I thought.

Later that night, my five-year old got a bit teary in bed. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was sad because she was going to die one day. DAMN YOU, PATTY! That stupid chicken’s death had opened a can of (grave) worms.

Using an old Lifehacker tactic, I explained to her that human lifespans keep getting longer thanks to advances in medical science. By the time she hits 70, they may have cracked the secret to eternal life. Hey, it’s possible.

This speculative optimism seemed to calm her, but it was a half-truth at best. I’m sure there’s a better explanation out there. With any luck, I’ll have it nailed by the time my toddler starts asking about death. But I’m probably going to need some help.

How did you explain the death of a pet or family member to your kids? Have you taught them about mortality? How did they take it? Share your tips and pointers in the comments section below. Doubtlessly a lot of parents who are reading would like to know.


  • The best explanation was from Carl Sagan to his daughter.

    … he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.


    Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.

    As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.

    • Less a ‘scientific’ worldview and more a materialist one. Sagan could not pretend that he was a-religious. His religion was that material was all there is and mind/person is a (mere) epiphenomenon of matter. Life therefore has no purpose or meaning, and is merely a particular arrangement of matter. Death and life are thus equally and our lives, lived dense with existential meaning are not differentiated in any real way from the void of death. Bleak.

  • How Do You Teach Kids About Death?
    Step 1: Ask your kids which is their least favourite pet…

  • I have nothing to add to this, but I do have a joke..

    A guy comes home from work one day to find his dog with a dead rabbit in his mouth. He quickly realises the rabbit belongs next door to the neighbours kids, and he starts to freak out.

    Rather than tell the neighbours and cause a lot of unpleasantness, he figures the kids won’t have discovered that the rabbit is missing yet.
    He takes the rabbit, washes it clean, blow-dries the fur dry, and at nightfall, puts the rabbit back into the hutch at the neighbour’s house, making it look like it died of natural causes.

    The next day later, the neighbour is outside and looking visibly shaken. Feigning concern, the guy asks him “Mate, is everything OK ?

    The neighbour replies, “Two days, our pet rabbit died, so we had a little funeral for it with the kids. They were upset but understood about death.
    Today, we find that some sicko has has dug him up and put him back into the hutch !”

    OK, I’ll get my coat..

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