Jesus In The Sky With Dinosaurs

November 9, 2009

When my father died a few months ago, my daughter drew this picture:

budge grandpa

‘This,’ she announced as we huddled over it together at my mother’s kitchen table, filling in the details, “is Grandpa’s Death House. It’s where he lives now.”

“I’m sure that he’s so happy that you made him such a wonderful Death House, sweetie. So happy.”

“He IS so happy. I made it so that every part of it is happy” – she pointed to the clouds made of hearts, the pink motorcycle balancing on the Christmas tree, the friendly shark (“because he needs pets”), the flowers nestled under the window through which the tiny shadow figures of her and her grandpa can be seen standing arm in arm – “so that he will be happy there. It’s where he lives now.” She pulled her crayon back from the picture and studied the finer detailing around the friendly ridgebacked shark. “Can we go visit him?”

Ah. Ah.

“We can’t go visit him, sweetie. He’s, um, in heaven now. That’s where his house is. That’s why he can have heart-clouds. He’s in heaven.”

“Because he’s dead?”


“Are the dinosaurs in heaven, too?”

“I don’t know.”

“And Jesus?”


She bent over the picture and added a sunbeam.

“Are you sure we can’t visit?”

“I’m sure.”

We’re three months into this loss now, and I still wear my grief, and she still asks questions. Why? Where? What? If Jesus is in heaven, and Grandpa is in heaven, and Jesus and Grandpa are dead, and the dinosaurs are dead, aren’t the dinosaurs in heaven, too? And, can we go there? Please can we go there? Why can’t we go there?

I don’t have the answers. I make vague stabs at trying to explain heaven and angels and the soul and about how when people die, it’s like going to sleep, but forever, and they kinda sorta go somewhere else, maybe, I hope, and I think that that somewhere else is heaven but I’m not sure and we can’t go there and yeah I wish we could but we can’t because going there means we have to leave here and never come back and no I’m not going there soon but someday and OH HEY LOOK A DINOSAUR!

I don’t know to answer her because I don’t know to answer myself. I don’t know what I believe, only that he’s gone and it’s terrible, so so terrible, and he must – he must – be somewhere good and happy and peaceful – he must, I know that he must – and we will see him again someday, we will, but what that all means in the bigger picture, and what that all has to do with Jesus and dinosaurs, I don’t know. So how do I talk to her about this? How do I talk about death with this small child for whom death just means moving to a rainbow colored house under a marshmallow sky, for whom Jesus is a dinosaur-wrangler and heaven a suburb of Candyland?

And how do I talk about it without my heart shattering into a million pieces each and every time?


(My question here – how do you talk to your kids about death? – will be featured at ParentsAsk later today, where, hopefully, some very smart expert-type persons will have some very smart expert-type answers. In the meantime – and because I believe, firmly, that some of the best answers come from ordinary people thinking with their hearts – I’d love it if you’d share your answers. And while you’re thinking about the core question, you might put your hearts/minds/heart-minds to these: does regular attendance at church help with this kind of thing? Does it matter? Do your kids need to have an understanding of God and heaven to understand concepts like soul and afterlife? Or do you just bust out The Little Prince?)

(Is this why people get goldfish?)


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    LD November 9, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I don’t have the answers.
    But …
    In my son’s kindergarten class they learned about life cycles (not pertaining to death, per se). My 5 year old really latched on to this concept.
    When my husband’s grandpa, whom my son was close to, passed away a couple weeks ago he said “so, his life cycle is over.”
    Matt (my son) still talks about death and dying and heaven, etc, but he seems to really just understand it – better than I can.
    I asked his teacher about it, and she said that several kids in his class have gone through a death lately, and they are all clinging to the life cycle concept. Maybe that would help?
    Having said that. When my grandma passed away a couple of years ago, the idea of it being as simple as a life cycle would have been hard for me to deal with. I still miss her, and I still have a hard time with it, and even though she was one of the most beautiful people you could meet, I have a hard time dealing with the notion that I won’t see her again.
    So, I know it’s not simple. At all.
    .-= LD´s last blog ..Halloween =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 9, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Yeah, my own confusion here is part of the problem (and another topic entirely, but still) – I’m struggling with the finality of death, not wanting to accept it, which makes responding honestly and clearly very difficult. Ugh.

    Heather November 9, 2009 at 11:27 am

    When my mother died last year, my daughter was 4 and she just got a little sister. We’re atheists, so we tried to explain that just as life starts (a little sister), life also ends. (Goldfish have helped.) And we asked her what she thought about things at every turn. Seems the world has been teaching her things, too, and she believes her grandmother is in heaven, which is fine with us. We also just read the 10th Good Thing About Barney, which brushes past heaven and talks about feelings at a child’s level. This is in preparation for a very beloved pet dying (our cat is getting up there), but it could spark an interesting conversation. It’s by Judith Viorst.

    red pen mama November 9, 2009 at 11:36 am

    I try to be honest, and age-appropriate, and try not to hurt too much when I’m talking about. My girls have a little brother who went directly from “mommy’s belly” to heaven, so he’s our reference point. “He’s in heaven with Jesus” is my standard answer. Flora occasionally asks if she can have another little brother (I hope, someday?). But hasn’t asked about visiting.

    I stay away from “it’s like going to sleep”. I think I read somewhere that that could scare little kids. We’re religious (Catholic) and Flora’s in Catholic school now, so the Jesus line is comprehensible at this point.

    That’s all I got. It’s not easy. Can’t wait to see what the experts have to say!

    .-= red pen mama´s last blog ..The Mouse is in the House =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 9, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Oh, wow, good point about the ‘going to sleep’ thing. Ack. Emilia didn’t seem phased by that, but yeah, can see how that’s a dodgy road to go down.

    tuesday November 9, 2009 at 11:39 am

    My father died when my twins were just 1. They ask many painful questions like:
    is there dirt on his body?
    Is he a skeleton?
    isn’t he cold?

    I know they are just curious and are asking age approriate questions. We try and reassure them that people who die are old and sick. (we know not true but they are obsessed with death & ask if they or we are going to die every single day).
    We try and answer their question as best as we can and tell them that we don’t know everything about death. That nobody does but then we talk about what we hope it is like now that6 they are 6. It seems to have helped their fears.
    .-= tuesday´s last blog ..Thank You Frailty, Thank You Consequence,Thank You Thank You Silence =-.

    Saisquoi November 9, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I honestly believe it’s OK to not have answers to some of these questions. I mean…we just don’t have them. But it is good to wonder about them. Are there dinosaurs in heaven? I don’t know. I wonder. I wonder if there are dinosaurs. I wonder if they’re all vegan. I wonder what Grandpa would think if he saw a dinosaur while he was out riding his pink motorcycle. It’s all totally honest, totally valid, and a good way for children (and their parents) to approach something undefined and full of mystery. Especially when talking about faith which is full of mystery and lacking a lot of predefined answers.

    When my grandmother died a few years ago, my cousin’s little boy was about the same age as your Emilia. He had basically adopted my grandmother as his honorary great-gran. At the wake he went up to the casket and asked “Is Mary dead?” “Yes.” “Is she in heaven?” “Yes.” “Well, I hope she’s having a good time with Jesus.” “You know, I bet she is.” “I miss her.” “I bet she misses you, too.”

    For several weeks, he’d comment on Mary being in heaven and having a good time with Jesus and missing her. I think he just needed to do something with the feelings he had and know that it was OK to have them and that we all had them too.
    .-= Saisquoi´s last blog ..Sweet Pea for my Sweet Pea =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 11:58 am

    See, that’s the thing that I like about Jesus here – the idea that he’s in heaven just hanging out with everybody and making them feel better. Angels could do that, too, I suppose, but they’re a little anonymous. Jesus is personal, right?

    geena November 9, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    I’m not sure, I just try to answer each question to the best of my ability as they come up. My husband’s grandfather, my kids great-grandfather passed this past wednesday and his funeral was yesterday. He was cremated and the kids especially had a lot of questions about where his body was and how he could be in the little box, and what exactly ashes were. Last night after dinner, I got all Bill Nye the Science Guy lol, and took a piece of paper and burned it so they could see what ashes were, and then I explained how just like the paper started big and ended up in little flaky pieces (ashes), great grandpa’s body did the same thing. They seemed to get it then, although one of my daughter’s was quite upset that great grandpa would want that done to him.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:27 am

    My dad was cremated, and on our mantle, and we haven’t even gotten to that issue yet. I just haven’t told her. UGH.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:27 am

    (I might borrow your science approach tho)

    daysgoby November 9, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    The kids’ Papa died earlier this year, and the best advice – the BEST advice – came from pamphlets from the mortuary. I wrote about it here:

    Which is not to say they don’t ask about him still, and miss him.

    I recommend the book Everything That Shines whole-heartedly. Remembering the one you love when you see something shiny (or anything beautiful, really) can only be a good thing.
    .-= daysgoby´s last blog ..nationality confused, but heart in the right place =-.

    Kat November 9, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    My Mom died this past July, and I feel for you: it’s so hard to comfort your kids and help them understand when you are dealing with the terrible, raw pain yourself.

    I think the best you can do is to be honest and explain your own beliefs: hard to do when we are not always 100% sure what we believe ourselves.

    While I would dearly, dearly love to think of my Mom’s spirit enduring after death and would do anything for the chance to see her again, I am sure this isn’t the case. When my kids asked me about heaven I told them the same thing – still, my youngest (6 yrs) says she thinks Gramma is in heaven. That’s fine: I’d love to think I’m raising not a copy of myself, but rather a thinker who is/will be capable of exploring these big questions herself and making up her own mind.

    As for going to church regularly – obviously I don’t think that’s necessary ;) Honestly: I think death is scary and hard to accept whether you have sincere and strong religious beliefs or none whatsoever.
    .-= Kat´s last blog ..The Wild Rumpus =-.

    Linda November 9, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    When ours discovered death, it wasn’t personal. Just a random HUGE concept that he ran across in one way or another. We talked about it for months and months. He’s a pretty matter of fact child and tells us every now and again that because we are old, we will die. (I’m 35! Good gracious.) He was comforted by the idea that he simply doesn’t have the time to die now. We told him that he needed to grow up and go to college and have kids of his own and take a thousand more vacations… The things that happen when you live your life and that seemed to calm him some.

    Our favorite “death” book is _A Story for Hippo: A Book About Loss_ by Simon Puttock. In it, Hippo gets old and dies and her young friend monkey is absolutely devastated. The end theme is that we hold people in our hearts and they hold us in theirs and that’s the way we get to “visit.” What I like about this book is that monkey is allowed to be sad. Nobody tried to jolly him or tell him to buck up or put a time limit on how long you’re allowed to be sad, or even how you are supposed to be sad. He’s given a coping strategy and it works for him even though he doesn’t completely shed his sadness.

    dale November 9, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    My 5 year old son woke up yesterday and asked, “How do you fit all the dead people into the birdhouse?” and “How does God get built?” I wonder what he was dreaming about? My husband was with him, and he fielded the questions. I don’t know what he said about the birdhouse (but I do know I’ll never look at our birdhouse the same way), but he answered the God one brilliantly – he said in effect that God was built from the energy of the plants and animals in the world. He liked that.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:28 am

    That’s lovely :)

    Eliza November 9, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Aloha ~

    Thinking back to my childhood, where one grand parent was gone before I was born, two died the year I was 5, and the last when I was 11, I can recall what my mother said about the last one’s passing – her mother. Mother’s cousin was the undertaker and we were going to look at my grandmother a few days before the funeral. Yup, in the open casket, just my brother and I with mom and her cousin Henry. Mother said, on our way to the ‘funeral parlor’, that “we’re going to see our Nana’s body, but her soul was in heaven.” That she’d “look like she’s sleeping but wouldn’t wake up”. Ok. Got that.

    What I remember is this weird conversation between Mom and cousin Henry about whether or not to put some black tulle on Nana’s arm. She was in a sleeveless dress and he thought her arm looked weird up against the back of the coffin. My 11-year-old opinion was sought (!!!). I said don’t bother with covering up her arm because we’d have to do both arms. Didn’t talk about such a conversation with any of my peers, since none of them were dealing with the loss of their grandparent. It was a weird childhood, let’s just say that.

    In recent years, I have had my dad pass in 2005, mom in 2006 and my last aunt in 2008. I am fortunate to be able to speak with people who have passed on as well as be aware that our soul continues on.

    There is a ‘bardo’ world where our souls go between here and the oversoul home. This bardo state is a common concept in the Buddhist community. Your daughter appears to have instinctively created a bardo world for your father. I really love her clouds of hearts.

    May I gently suggest you seek a Bach Flower Essence practitioner? It may be helpful for your own grief as well as your son’s attachment issues. They have alleviated many emotional traumas which no other process could without nasty side affects.

    Malama pono ~ take care – Maluhia ~ peace.
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..Soul Wholeness =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:29 am

    A bardo world. I love that. Thank you.

    Eliza November 11, 2009 at 3:37 am

    Most welcome, HBM.

    The bardo world is a great place for your daughter to meet her grandpa any time she wants to be creative.

    Also, if you want to expand your idea of what our souls do between lives (stepping into the concept of reincarnation here), you may find the books of Michael Newton, PhD. of interest.

    Blessings always ~ Hugs from afar.
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..Soul Wholeness =-.

    Della November 9, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    For people who believe in the things that the Bible says, I recommend the book Someday Heaven ( as long as we’re at it, I do recommend the other books, Someone Awesome and Somewhere Angels).

    If a question is answered in the Bible, the book puts it in a way kids can process. If it’s not answered, the book says so, admitting that we don’t know.

    It’s not a book on death but obviously covers death issues.

    Della November 9, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    weird… it messed up the link.

    also for those who know I normally write nnovel-comments, I’m not gushing because although it really “did it” for me, i know people’s tastes and beliefs are so different, you’ll need to check it out for yourself (for your kid).
    .-= Della´s last blog ..A couple updates =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks, Della :)

    Heather @ Cool Zebras November 9, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    I have explained to my kids (when they ask questions) that sometimes people’s bodies quit working and the doctors try everything they can to help fix them but sometimes they are just broken too much, like some of their toys get worn out or broken.

    I’ve also explained that sometimes people get too sick to get better, and that it is a different kind of sick than when you just have a runny nose, etc.

    They do hear about heaven at Sunday School, but I’ve rarely heard them associate any of our family going there. I’m not sure why. I suspect if/when we have a death of someone closer to us I will have to deal with more questions. We have been lucky in recent years (since I’ve had kids) or maybe we were just extra unlucky before.
    .-= Heather @ Cool Zebras´s last blog ..Growth and Denial =-.

    Kelly November 9, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    My mother-in-law’s beloved dog recently passed away and we decided on a very simple explanation of death for our 4 year old daughter. Violet wanted to know where the dog went, literally. We explained that when a living thing dies, it returns to the earth and helps the flowers and butterflies grow. This seemed to make her feel better. Thankfully she didn’t seem too interested in the specifics of “returning to the earth”. Burial and cremation are tough topics.
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Wardrobe Wednesday: My Flower Fairy =-.

    Heather @ Domestic Extraordinaire November 9, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    After my dad passed away instead of trying to answer the girls’ questions-they were 8 and 5. I would answer their questions with questions. “Where do you think Papa Larry is?” “You know we can’t visit him. Do you know why?”

    I also told them that anytime they wanted they could talk to Papa Larry and ask him whatever they wanted. He’s always right there in your heart, I would tell them.

    It seemed to work.
    .-= Heather @ Domestic Extraordinaire´s last blog ..Growing up Giggles Style =-.

    Alana Morales, Author of Domestically Challenged November 9, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Death is a tough one. When my mom passed away, which was totally unexpected, we were brutally honest. Then, my son went into a depression.

    I think the key is being open, not only about what has happened to your family, but your feelings. I told my kids if I was sad (until it was excessive, mind you :) ). They needed to know that it was ok for them to be upset too.

    It’s not easy, when they ask with such big hearts, is it?

    Martini Mom November 9, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    My dad died 2 months before my son was born, and we’ve had many conversations over the years about where Grandpa Gary is and why we can’t visit him. When my son was 5-ish, his great-grandmother died, and the conversations started again with new intensity.

    I struggled, too, with what to say. I didn’t know how to answer his questions, not because I didn’t know how to explain it to him in a way that he could understand, but because I don’t know the answers myself.

    We are not a religious family, so we don’t have the concept of heaven to guide us. So what are we left with? The truthful answer, and the one I gave him, is that no on knows for sure. We talked about all the beliefs I could think of: heaven, reincarnation, ghosts, nothingness, etc. I told him the only thing I’m certain of is that our dead are not on this earth with us anymore – at least not in a form that we can see or visit.

    And then I asked him what he thought happened when we die; which made most sense to him. He initially settled on heaven. Later, he decided they became stars. Later, that each person gets to decide what happens to them when they die; whether they go to heaven or become stars or disappear into the mist… it’s each person’s own choice.

    It turns out he’s much better (and more creative) at coming up with answers to the tough questions than I am.
    .-= Martini Mom´s last blog ..Wherein I attempt to explain what I was thinking when I decided to get married =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    That it’s each person’s choice is a lovely lovely lovely idea. And perfect for a little girl who wants to paint it out ;)

    Haley-O (Cheaty) November 9, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I had to talk to my daughter A LOT about death when our cat Tigger died recently — AND when I had to bring Tigger’s ashes home in a box — “Tigger’s DUST,” my daughter tells her friends when they ask about our cats. At the time, my daughter asked tons of questions, constantly. And I answered them as honestly as I could — including saying “I don’t know.” I think it’s good to admit that we don’t know everything. I think maybe this is a good way to teach our kids that it’s okay not to know everything and that the “unknown” is a part of life.

    From that experience, I learned what’s now my best rule: be honest. I hope that helps….
    .-= Haley-O (Cheaty)´s last blog ..“Marshmallow” and Other Monkeyisms for Which There Are NO WORDS =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:30 am

    The reminder to be honest is tremendously helpful, Haley. It’s so tempting to cover up grief, to make up stories that I’m not sure I believe in. Honesty is hard – but necessary. Yeah.

    Mama Mary November 9, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    HBM, I am sorry to hear of your loss. I lost my dad 8 years ago but my kids were not born yet so I didn’t have to answer these tough questions to them. But I did have to answer them to myself, which it sounds like you are trying to do too. That was a toughie for me. I had always “believed” in heaven and angels and the pearly gates, but when it was my own dad, it was hard for me to grasp that notion. I remember wanting to know EXACTLY where he was. I wanted to know and the fact that I couldn’t concretely know drove me nuts. It has gotten better over the years though and so that is all I can say–it gets better. The first year is beyond, beyond hard and I think it is wonderful that you are writing about it here. My most recent blog entry was about my dad–and my missing him.

    So, I apologize–in my long, drawn out comment, there is nothing that really answers your original question. Time will help you come up with what is right for you.
    .-= Mama Mary´s last blog ..what is it with Grey’s and dads? =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:31 am

    That’s it, exactly. The not knowing drives me nuts. I’m not at peace with it. So it’s hard to imaprt peace about it to my daughter. SIGH.

    Mama Mary November 9, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    I love this post by the way–and the drawings are just too precious.
    .-= Mama Mary´s last blog ..what is it with Grey’s and dads? =-.

    Rachel November 9, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Let’s try this again – my computer seized up as I was posting last time…

    I second the recommendation for The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. When I worked as a religious educator for a Unitarian Universalist church, this book was one we loaded many times for children dealing with death.

    My four year old has been encountering death since her birth. We talk plainly about what happens when things die and different things people believe about death. We have buried many a worm, bird, and plant in the backyard.

    I tell my daughter that when something dies, it stops moving and it can’t do anything any more. No more breathing or thinking. It doesn’t hurt or have any feelings anymore. Body parts are broken down and returned to the earth. That might be too stark for some belief systems, but it helps my daughter to have some concrete measures of death.
    .-= Rachel´s last blog ..Putting the Straw In Strawberries =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I think that’s where the death of pets can be (this sounds so horrible to say) useful – usually, children get an immediate sense of what it means for a being to go from HERE to NOT-HERE.

    ilinap November 9, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    I used to read the Fall of Freddie the Leaf whenever I lost a pediatric bone transplant patient I volunteered with. I read it to my sons when my FIL died when they were 2 and 4 1/2. We don’t go to church but we talk about heaven. The struggle was not to make it sound so great that they want to go there now. My sons randomly ask questions about Grandpa at the oddest times. My advice is to get your story straight with the others in your life whom your children might go to with questions. My husband and I didn’t corroborate our details and really confused our kids. My FIL is in a mausoleum so we do not take our sons to visit him…yet. That is just too much to deal with at their age. So far they haven’t asked details about exactly what happens. I wrote this poast about explaining a soldier’s funeral to my son. Good luck with this most difficult of parenting times.

    Mom101 November 9, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    I wrote about this recently and my readers had really wonderful suggestions. As for me, I told Thalia that when we die, all the love that’s in us then just goes out into the universe so we can all take a little piece of it wherever we go. It seemed to work.

    And your daughter is a hell of an artist. Brilliant like her mama.
    .-= Mom101´s last blog ..What’s up with the FTC and blogs these days? Don’t ask me, ask the FTC =-.

    Another Suburban Mom November 9, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    We have explained to the kids that your body is a decorative shell for your soul and that when you die, your body is no longer important and that your souls poofs off to Heaven.

    We have told the kids that everything, no matter how wonderful must come to an end and that it is good to talk about how they miss their loved ones and it ok to be sad or angry or happy.

    Does it work? My nine year old seems happy enough with the answer. But it could change depending on who dies.

    I know, I am absolutely no help on this one.
    .-= Another Suburban Mom´s last blog ..Random Wrap Up and Spotlight Blog =-.

    Redneck Mommy November 9, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    You my friend, are a sadist. Making me read this and my heart shatters once more into a million shards of invisible glass.


    Okay. Having had to spend more time talking about death to children than any mother ever have to, I understand your problem. More so because I know how damn smart that Mia cookie is and how persistent she can be.

    (She gets all that from me, her favourite internet auntie by the way.)

    Don’t equate death with sleep. That could spell future trouble.

    Knowing you, and knowing her, Cat, I’d be honest. I’d tell her you just don’t know WHERE Grampa Stephen is but you KNOW he is happy and full of love and can’t wait to see all of you again.

    And when she persists, explain that it is a big mystery, a big adventure that we only get to go on once we have lived our life to the very fullest.

    And of course, when she starts to step on your very last nerve about this, put her on the phone with me. I’ll spin large tales about how Grampa is watching over us, playing with the dragons and dinosaurs and keeping my baby safe while we live our life to the fullest and wait to join them. Cuz you know, I can talk the ears off the chattiest toddler and teach her all the really cool things in life at the same time.
    .-= Redneck Mommy´s last blog ..Dominatrix, Blow and Spinning. Google Pervs Delight =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Which is why I asked you. You know better than anyone. And you handle this all with such grace.

    And, and… knowing that Dad is with your Bug that he got to know of Bug, through you, just a few weeks before he died. is an immeasurable consolation to me. Immeasurable.

    Kathy November 9, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    My father pasted away 11 years ago yesterday. There are many days now that go by and I don’t think of him and then I will hear my windchimes and know that he is talking to me. I do talk to him a lot since he is on my mantle. My kids and grandkids talk to him also. My grandkids weren’t even born yet. When oldest was around 4 she looked up to the sky and saw a cloud with a “hole” in it. She said, “that’s granpa’s window and he is watching us”. I like to think that!

    jaelithe November 10, 2009 at 1:48 am

    Being agnostic myself, I have told my child that everything is part of everything else, and that when people die, the molecules that make up their bodies get recycled into other things, like trees and birds and the air, but their personalities live on in the memories of the people who knew them and in the changes they made in the world.

    I don’t know what ELSE may be true about death, but I do know that both of those things are true. So that’s where I start.

    Incidentally, my kid has spontaneously decided he believes in reincarnation, in the very literal sense of people’s souls being reborn as infants after they die. I had never explained this concept to him before he came up with it on his own, but at a certain point when I realized what he was talking about, I felt compelled to tell him there was already a word for what he was describing and a billion or more people believe in it. (He says he has lived already before, and that he had to come back to Earth after his last life because he hadn’t learned enough yet about how to be nice to people. His seriousness about this actually kind of freaks me out sometimes.)

    I don’t think anyone really knows how to explain death to children. We all try our best, but we’re all a bit perplexed by death ourselves, and it’s even harder to think clearly about it when the discussion involves a loved one. I think the fact that you are thinking about this so carefully means you will do as good a job as you can, which is all any of us can do.

    Brooke November 10, 2009 at 1:57 am

    My younger brother was 4 when my grandma died. He seemed too young to really comprehend what was going on (heck, I was even kind of young), but when we left for spring break a month later, he started to cry and panic as we broke through the clouds on the plane. My mom asked him if he was scared, but he sobbed something like, “No. I just don’t want the plane to hit Nanny in heaven.”

    The pieces will eventually come together. I’m now 26, and I don’t fully understand it.
    .-= Brooke´s last blog ..The Boiling River =-.

    Susan (5 Minutes for Mom) November 10, 2009 at 3:02 am


    Talking about death with kids is ridiculously difficult and tends to lead to ridiculous questions and answers.

    Since I am a Christian, I do try to explain to Julia that people go to Heaven to be with Jesus, but it’s such an abstract concept that even I don’t really understand — I just accept with a faith that is okay with me not getting it.

    So to her, I just say it’s really difficult to understand.

    My 4 year old’s big thing lately is comparing all large things to God. Are dinosaurs as big as God? Is Clifford bigger than God?

    Is God here on the couch? Is God over there by the TV?

    Why can’t we see God?

    So I say to her, “Well, it’s kinda like the air that we breathe. We can’t see it, but we know it is there. And it is everywhere around us. God is kinda like that. But don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense… it’s complicated.”

    So for the concept of God, that air analogy kinda works. But Heaven and Jesus… that one is just soooooo hard to understand. For any of us. Much less a 4 year old.

    I really hope that you get some answers… and if you do, please let us all know.
    .-= Susan (5 Minutes for Mom)´s last blog ..Tackle It Tuesday – A Carnival Party =-.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I was raised Catholic, so my fallback is heaven and Jesus, but, yeah, it is SO difficult to explain.

    But I have a suspicion that if I compared God to air Emilia would ask if he has anything to do with our farts.

    Brooke November 10, 2009 at 3:04 am

    My father-in-law passed in August and it was a huge deal for my son (3 1/2), who was extremely close with him. He had cancer, so his passing was kind of a process, and was expected when it happened. We were lucky in that respect, I suppose, because we were able to talk to him about it before it happened – once his grandmother was comfortable with us telling him, that is.

    We told him that his grandfather was in (or going to be in) heaven, and from there he decided on his own that God needed him in heaven to help him, which we agreed with and gave him a sense of pride about the whole thing. He was pretty content with that answer, although he still has issues with the finality of it. Grandpa’s car still sits in front of Grandma’s house and nearly every time we pull up he asks if he is there or still in heaven. We’ve told him that he’s not going to come back, that he’s in heaven forever, but I think the ‘forever’ concept is a bit much for a 3 year old.

    A day at a time, a question at a time.. no one has all of the answers.
    .-= Brooke´s last blog ..Standing in Line =-.

    Sharon November 10, 2009 at 8:01 am

    My challenge is that I’m an atheist, but I want my children to come to their own conclusions about spirituality and religion. I tend to offer them various scenarios: “some people believe in heaven” etc. In that case, I think the dinosaurs could very well be up there with her grandfather.

    My personal beliefs are more focused on nature, as the first commenter said: the cycle of life, going back to the earth etc.

    Very fortunately, we haven’t had to deal with a death close to our family yet, so I am able to get away with a certain ambiguity. I’m sure the questions – and the answers – will change when we have to deal with it first-hand.
    .-= Sharon´s last blog ..five =-.

    Marinka November 10, 2009 at 8:44 am

    There are times when I wish that I were a religious person, that the comfort that people find in the afterlife applied to me.

    I have no answers, or rather not the answers that people want to hear.
    What I tell my kids is that people that we love live on in our hearts and we can visit them there whenever we want. But they also know that it sucks. Because who wants to hang out with Jesus and dinosaurs?
    .-= Marinka´s last blog ..No Need for Fancy Talk =-.

    Jessi November 10, 2009 at 10:03 am

    I didn’t read all the responses, because… Yeah.

    You asked if regular church attendance helped and I wanted to give my answer to that question. We are sort of religious people and we are definitely regular church attenders and from that perspective I will tell that you that regular church attendance does not matter. Church is the social aspect of faith. There is nothing at church that you can’t do/have/be elsewhere. What makes it easier, IMO, is knowing what you believe. And sometimes, you just don’t. Sometimes it’s just not that easy.

    I think it’s okay for Emilia to see you struggle with it though. I think we try too hard to make these things look open and shut to our kids. It’s okay for her to know about belief and the choices that surround that. It’s okay for her to know that you don’t have it all figured out.

    Good luck. We love you.

    Her Bad Mother November 10, 2009 at 10:53 am


    Michelle November 10, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Gosh this is so tough. My grandmother died when my daughter was only 3 months old so she doesn’t remember her. But she asks a LOT of questions (she is six). She always requests to see pictures of her great grandma and she asks a lot of questions about where she is now. Last year she went to a private Catholic school and I think she learned A LOT there. I’m not super religious so I found it REALLY difficult to explain it to her. The only thing I really said was that she was in a better place and that it was just time for her to move on and that she was old and really sick. Now she’s not hurting or sick. I’m a fairly new reader here and I realize your situation is MUCH different because it was so unexpected. I honestly don’t know how I would handle that or what I would say. That’s so hard :( I hope that you can find the right words and I am praying for you and your whole family to find healing.
    .-= Michelle´s last blog ..♥Thoughts… =-.

    Bella November 10, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    This is really hard and it constantly amazes me that some of the hardest questions, the most important ones, have had so little attention paid to them by developmental psychologists (I’m one, so I know and I’m just amazed at how little research and theory there is on this issue). What DOES seem to relieve kids the most? How honest is too honest? Are there certain things that you can tell children that increase their anxiety? What decreases it? Are there better ages to be “fully” honest with what you know or believe? Etc, etc.

    On a more personal note, I’m agnostic (at best) and have a deep sense of awe and love for science and natural “laws” and all that they can teach us (and the continued mysteries they offer). So when I’ve talked to kids about death (not my own yet…) I’ve focused on the more naturalistic explanations that mean something to me — sort of a simplified version of physics mixed with a bit of budhhism: no matter ever disappears, it just transforms into something else, all the particles in our bodies become part of the earth, trees, air we breathe. I don’t believe in a coherent soul per se that is maintained after the death of the body, but I DO have an equal measure of respect and awe for our minds and our community of minds and, it’s in that community of minds, that I think “souls” reside. We go on after our deaths through the memories and re-imagined interactions that we have with those we leave behind. To simplify for kids, I have told them that through our memories, we keep grandma/grandpa/etc alive — when we think of them, we can play, read, sing, dance with them “in our heads” and just like in dreams that are so very real in some ways, or when we play “make believe” with our stuffed doggies/cats/teddies, the experiences and conversations we have with those that have died are “real” and just as important to us as they are to the loved one who has died. Kids seem to get this, at least the 2 that I’ve talked to (around 4 and 5). And for me, it keeps enough mysticism in the explanation that they can substitute if for a more “conventional” story from religious traditions if they feel that’s the right thing for them later. This is the approach I plan on taking with my children (when they’re 25 and experience their first death;-)

    Catherine, thank you so much for opening up such a thoughtful discussion. I have so much admiration for the way you are working through this with yourself, your kids and all of us. Really… thank you.
    .-= Bella´s last blog ..I want it NOW! Linking delayed gratification, marshmallows and SAT scores =-.

    LAVENDULA November 10, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    i’m sorry catherine that you are in such anquish over your fathers death.for me for the people who have died lately i just ask did they have a good life were they loved did they love was there happiness then i am ok with their passing as this brings me for my children when my gran died i just told them that she was very old and she had a good life and that with her death there is now room for a new life to be born

    Pooba~ November 10, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    I used to be really freaky about death… but not too long ago I worked in a hospital and our office was near the morgue. I have learned that we are all GODs little flowers and we bloom and shine and die…

    AND if you figure it this way… from the time we are born we are learning and being tested… and death is our final exam…

    AND if we studied and learned our lessons well and practiced them (do onto others as you would have them do onto you)… you will PASS your test… (get it?)

    My dad was sick for three years, in and out of hospitals… and when he finally died… I was joyful that he no longer had to suffer and that he had passed his test… and finally went home…

    PS… he died on Father’s Day… how wonderful that my earthly father went home to my heavenly father… ON FATHER’S DAY ! ! !

    Kate House November 10, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    I’m so sorry to hear about your dad (new reader). My grandmother, to whom my three-year old was extremely close, passed away a few months ago. Part of me wondered if my daughter would start to forget her Nanny, but other than mentioning her less, she hasn’t. Sometimes it feels whiny to complain about losing a great-grandmother, since so many parents don’t have the chance to introduce their grandparents to their children. But a loss is so definitely still a loss…

    The “problem” with Heaven is that we can’t describe it or illustrate it or call it on the phone. My daughter wants to know “when Nanny will be back from Heaven,” if she’ll “come back in time for my birthday party,” etc. I think maybe your daughter’s approach is exactly the right one–DO try to draw it and imagine it and make it whatever you want. Because when you get right down to it, at the moment, we, the people left behind, are the ones who need the comfort.

    Charles November 10, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Best I have seen or read is “Freddy the Leaf”.

    Erin November 10, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Not that it answers your questions exactly, but maybe a reminder that death is with all of us, and our children, everyday:
    .-= Erin ´s last blog ..Rolling Over the Blogroll =-.

    heatherw November 10, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I think this topic is tricky because it requires parents to think about what a) they believe, and b)what they want their children to believe.

    Religious teachings give some comforting answers to church goers – which makes it seem easy for some people to explain death to their children.

    For me, talking about death with my children has become complicated (perhaps in my own mind) because it brings up the religious teachings I learned as a child. That I turned away from those religious beliefs and religion altogether brings up some conflicted feelings in my own heart. I’m not sure what I believe about the after life – which is of course something I’ve told my own children. Our discussions have tended to veer towards the purpose of life – which I’m not sure I totally understand either, especially because my own depression causes me to question this frequently (and sometimes with less than pleasant thoughts). The depression is something I try not to share too much detail about with my children.

    Kids are smart, though, and they try to understand the world on their own terms the way we are trying. My own daughter, after asking me what happens when people die, observed “I guess you wouldn’t know cuz you’ve never been dead”. I think our children want our honesty and our sincerity, and not necessarily an easy answer. I think it’s how they gauge whether they can trust us with their questions.

    just my two cents.

    GreenInOC November 11, 2009 at 3:49 am

    I heard a clip from this tonight on the radio and thought of you; it’s from Seasame Street when Big Bird is having a hard time understanding Mr. Hooper won’t be coming back:
    .-= GreenInOC´s last blog ..If The Stupid Stupak Amendment Stays In H.R. 3962 Let’s Also Legislate Ejaculations =-.

    Alison November 11, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Thank you for opening up this discussion. I think you are handling it all quite wonderfully with your daughter – the talking, the drawing, the expressing herself.

    When my sister died, my parents unfortunately did none of that. They thought they were handling it the right way – not letting me go to the funeral, not crying in front of your mother… and it resulted in me hating Jesus and God (and a lot of therapy).

    My son can grasp the concept of the body wearing out when you get get old and sick, but when babies/children die or parents, then he doesn’t get it at all.
    .-= Alison´s last blog mouse V country mouse =-.

    Lisa November 11, 2009 at 11:22 am

    My best friend’s mom died recently, after a stroke, and to explain it I told my 4 yr old that she was really sick and, since we’re Lutheran, we prayed for her to get better. When the news was less hopeful, we prayed for a peace and comfort for everyone in the family, all of whom I knew. When she died, K would ask what about Mrs. ___, is she getting better? We discussed this a couple different times and I simply told her that she died and was in heaven with her husband (who had died previously, obviously) and Jesus. When she asked if we could go there, I sais someday baby, but not for a long time. That’s where it has been left for now. We have 4 of our grandparents living, so I am sure the discussion will continue.

    Shawna November 11, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    For what it’s worth, I’m very afraid of death, both my own and my loved ones’. I am envious of those that believe in an afterlife because it must give them great comfort. I just… don’t. I want to, but I don’t.

    When my daughter (who is almost 4) asks about death (and she does), I just tell her that death is a part of life, that every thing that lives dies eventually and it’s nothing to be frightened of. When asked, I answer yes, one day we too will die, but hopefully not until we’ve had a long, long, happy time together, and if we’re lucky we’ll leave people that will have good memories of us and will miss us.

    I’m trying very hard not to pass on my fear of death to her.

    Brittany at Mommy Words November 12, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Sophia, my 3 year old, has been talking about death since she saw Annie for the first time a few months ago. Annie has no mommy and daddy and so she started asking questions. Because she is 3 I have been fairly straight forward and given simple answers. She says it will be sad when people she loves die. She says she understands when I tell her that usually older people die before younger people. She asked when she would die and if it would be at the same time as me and her nanna. I ave old her that after people die, someday, we will all be together. I have also told her that after people die they are not scared and that they are happy. I guess I am talking about the concept of heaven without actually calling it that. I think it will actually get harder when she is older and has more difficult questions. Right now she wants to cuddle when we talk about it though, and hug and kiss, and that is good. I hope we always can do something like that during tough conversations.

    Your daughter drew a wonderful picture and I would think that is a part of her way of dealing with death and that she is expressing some view of a happy time after death.

    Again, I am so sorry you lost your dad. I hope he is in such a wonderful place like the one your daughter draws!

    You have made me think on this one. I am eager to see what the experts say!
    .-= Brittany at Mommy Words´s last blog ..Potty Time with a Penis =-.

    Ginger November 12, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Catherine, I am glad you asked these questions because the answers here have been very illuminating. I am not religious and have wondered how to tell my three year old about things of which I have very little understanding. I only know I never expected her to ask so many questions at this age, including about her death, my death, and why we can’t just go get a new Grandma.
    .-= Ginger´s last blog ..Wave the flag and pass the khaki yarn =-.

    Chelsea November 16, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    First off, I’m so sorry for your loss. Having to deal with your own grief is tough enough; to handle the grief and questions of little ones at the same time is definitely an added challenge.

    I lost my husband, and the father of my two beautiful little girls (ages 4 & 2) almost 7 months ago. I’m amazed at how much they seem to grasp (the older one at least) – perhaps because it has had such an extreme effect on their daily lives – I’m not sure.

    There have been many great responses here, I’m not sure what I can add – but, though it has nothing really to do with religious beliefs (mine, like many others here are not so easily defined), I’ve avoided the concept of heaven, just because I feel it makes it seem like a ‘place’ and as such, somewhere that could be ‘visited’. It also feels too far removed for me personally. Too distant. I like to think of Elias as being closer to us. We always talk about how Daddy is all around us. His love. His spirit/soul. We talk, as others have shared, that his body stopped working (yes, staying away from the ‘sleep’ idea is good, and I try to be careful explaining how Daddy was ‘sick’ {he had cancer} because I don’t want her to think I’ll die if I get a cold, for example), but he lives in our hearts now and any time we want to talk to him, he’s listening, watching over us – and if you listen with your heart, you can feel his love.

    My daughter often talks about how she sees his face on the moon, or she sees him in a dragonfly, bird, etc. This could be because of my ramblings about a certain butterfly that was a constant visitor to us this summer. . . . but she gets excited with the concept and that makes me feel comfortable with it. I find her questions about cancer to be the most difficult to answer, but as with the issue of death, it seems keeping it as honest as you can, short, and as simple as you can is best. Nothing wrong with saying you don’t know, and nothing wrong with wondering along with them either. You may need to be prepared that it will come up again and again as children process things different ways at different stages in their lives (so I have been told, and have experienced to some degree thus far).

    And, as I have found for myself, in those deep moments of grief, as there is nothing to say to ‘make it better’, giving them a comfortable environment to express their grief is the best we can do for them, and for ourselves. Sorry for the lengthy reply – I’m a pretty ‘wordy’ person. . . .

    Best of luck to you and yours,

    Chelsea November 16, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Ack, ick, oops!

    I realize that my choice of words could have misconstrued my intent when I made a statement regarding our loss and the impact on my girls’ daily lives . . . it’s not to say that the loss of your father does not affect your daughters’ daily life, I was more referring to the physical loss of my husbands’ presence in the house – his cooking, giving them baths, reading stories, playing, etc. – every day ‘daddy’ stuff, now being gone. I hope that I didn’t offend . . .

    I’m also not implying that my eldest ‘gets it’ completely either – she has her moments too, as do I, and anyone suffering a great loss.

    Finally, I’ve read ‘Death is of Vital Importance’ by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and am now reading Grief and Grieving, both of which I have found helpful in dealing with my loss and understanding of death.

    Take care,
    .-= Chelsea´s last blog ..Argh =-.

    Elizabeth November 27, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    This is such an important topic. I’ve experienced many deaths in my immediate family (both parents, my infant son and two brothers) and my daughters, now 21 and 15 have had to struggle with these concepts as well.

    I’m not a religious person, but my son’s death, and the need to explain it to my oldest daughter who was 4 at the time, helped me understand that I am still deeply spiritual. By finding a way to explain the concept of death to my child I came to an importnat understanding of my belief system, that I’d never articulated until then.

    We have to make sure we can stand behind what we say to our kids. I didn’t want to use words like “heaven” and “Jesus”, since I didn’t have the faith to back those concepts up.

    I told her that every one has a unique energy or spirit that comes into being when they’re born. When that person dies that energy doesn’t leave the world, it just isn’t available directly through that person any more. Part of that energy enters us, but we can also look for it in other places and things that remind us of that person.

    I told her that I always feel my mother’s energy when I see beautiful trees and flowers, since my Mom loved these things so much. Her energy is acting within me a when I admire the colours of the leaves in the fall.

    We talked about the ways we’d be able to feel her brother’s spirit. How we carry his spirit within us and see him in the little birds that come in November (the month that he died).

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