This October was my Dad’s 2nd birthday he didn’t have. He would have been 81, and on the 5th of October, my family and I build a shrine on our fireplace mantle to remember not only my Dad but others in our family including some pets who are no longer with us on earth.
We started this tradition two years ago and it was the perfect time to talk about death with my then 2 and 4-year-old. It was also a great way to incorporate our culture as my Mom was born in Mexico and Offrendas are common at this time of year. Once we are done decorating the photos with candles, candies, and flowers we watch a movie. For my kids now 4 and 6, we still watch “The Book of Life”. It’s a cute cartoon about the transition of death but not scary at all. My kids enjoy the story and each year I think they pick up something different. It also starts the conversation about death and gives little kids the words and context to ask questions about death.
My son is more aware of death and even made me promise him I would never go skydiving again after he found out I’d done it twice. That said I still don’t think he understands it completely. Death is not easy to define and it is hard to talk about especially if you aren’t a religious family but, like me, do believe in a higher power.
I was raised catholic and I remember being very confused by death. One day my older brother found me playing with a dead bird in my dollhouse around age 5. It was the first talk I remember about death. I also remember being really confused as to why I couldn’t still play with the bird, as it was dead.
Research says a child’s understanding of death is broken down into 3 stages.
1-3 Years Old
At this age, kids don’t have the cognition to grasp what can’t be reversed. They cannot grasp how death is final and can’t be undone. So kids at this age will talk about death as if it is just a trip or a car ride and they will come back once we find the right solution.
4-5 Years Old
At around age 4 kids start to learn that some things are not reversible. That said, about half still are learning this well into age 5. Even with this understanding that death is final kids around this age are still not able to grasp the magnitude of death and how they are no longer functional and can no longer do things that they could before.
6-7 Years Old
Every kid is different and those who have experienced more trauma and emotional events might understand death sooner. Around age 7 most kids understand death and that all living things will die. Still, some kids will think there are special groups of people who are protected from death, like family, friends, teachers and themselves.
Have you talked about death with your kids?
Do share any tips or things to consider to help others who might be navigating this topic with a heavy heart. * L