Having those difficult conversations

Parveen Shaikh

Death is the ultimate reality. We have all seen more than our share of deaths during the pandemic, yet talking about death and dying remains taboo. We delay breaking the bad news with loved ones, even when death is looming large on the horizon with a terminally ill family member. A terminal illness impacts the family as much as it affects the patient. Dealing with the emotional, physical and financial onslaught takes centerstage. Talking to young children in the family about the imminent death of a loved one is often left to be dealt with after the person dies, leaving children confused and ill-prepared to process it. Avoiding the topic of death may lead to possible anxiety, fear, depression and even guilt among children when they face the death of a loved one.

Talking to children about death is challenging; we have to consider the children’s age, developmental stage and experience when discussing the topic. Sandra Macguire (2013) talks about the concept of “anticipatory guidance”, which according to Mosby’s medical dictionary means, “Psychological preparation of a person to help relieve the fear and anxiety of an event expected to be stressful.” Providing anticipatory guidance can help children cope with the experience of facing the death of a loved one. You can explore the four main concepts of death based on the children’s level of understanding.
• Death is irreversible. It is permanent and unchangeable.
• Death is final. When a person dies, all functioning stops.
• Death is inevitable. All living beings die.
• Death has a cause.

Infants and toddlers have no understanding of the finality of death. In contrast, preschoolers do not have the concept of irreversibility and often see death as reversible and temporary and in their ‘magical thinking,’ expect the deceased person to come back. Their reaction is to the emotions of the people around them and may show it through fear, poor sleep, etc. Primary age children have a better understanding of the concept of death and often ask specific questions about death. Respond to their questions honestly and help them express themselves through drawings and play. They still perceive death as something that happens to others. Middle school children understand the finality and irreversibility of death. They may be reluctant to discuss it and may show delayed reactions. Encourage discussion and be a good listener. Adolescents also understand the finality of death and often seek peer support to process their loss. Be supportive and listen if they wish to share their thoughts.

Parents and teachers often struggle to discuss the topic and lack resources and ideas to start the conversation about death. That’s where books come into the picture. Books and stories are an integral part of childhood; books have the potential to heal. Bibliotherapy is the process when learning from a book has therapeutic benefits. Fortunately, children’s literature has identified this need and there are many valuable picture books that parents and teachers can use to facilitate discussion about death and dying. Some of my personal favourites, which have worked with children of different age groups are Cry, Heart but never break by Glen Ringtved, which portrays death as gentle and not scary. Where do they go? by Julia Alvarez leads children into an open-ended discussion about death. Duck, Death and Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch is a heart-warming, witty and thought-provoking book about death. The heart and the bottle by Oliver Jeffers is about the process of grief. Closer home, Gone Grandma by Chatura Rao talks about the loss of a grandparent and a child’s endless questions to make sense of her death. Boo! When my sister died by Rich Jha is about the many emotions associated with grief.

Schools have an enormous responsibility to support children’s emotional wellbeing. As and when children return to school, discussion about loss and death is inevitable. While schools are getting ready for the safe return of their students, it is important to give teachers the proper training and tools to handle uncomfortable discussions about death in the classroom. Teachers will also have to pay attention to the signs and symptoms of grief (such as regression, bedwetting, withdrawal) in children and provide timely intervention.

Death is an inherent part of the human lifecycle. We need to end the taboo surrounding death and create an environment that allows a natural response to death, grief and mourning. Let us enable honest and non-threatening dialogue about death with children both at home and in school.


  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276493619_An_ongoing_concern_Helping_children_comprehend_death
  2. Retrieved 3 October 2021, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1236723.pdf
  3. Retrieved 3 October 2021, from http://www.socstrpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/MS06654-Maguth.pdf
  4. Willis, C. (2002). Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(4), 221-226. doi: 10.1023/a:1015125422643
  5. What do teachers think of death education?. (2021). Death Studies. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07481187.2020.1817176
  6. Stanford Children’s Health. (2021). Retrieved 3 October 2021, from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=a-childs-concept-of-death-90-P03044
  7. How Children Understand Death & What You Should Say. (2021). Retrieved 3 October 2021, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/How-Children-Understand-Death-What-You-Should-Say.aspx

The author is an established professional in the field of education and child development for over two decades. Her continued interest and passion lead her to constantly innovate and conceptualize ideas for preschool, primary, secondary, and senior secondary school learning. She currently works as the principal of The Somaiya School, Mumbai. She constantly strives and endeavours to implement her ideas and acquired expertise, thus making the school a vibrant center for learning and growth. She can be reached at principal.tss@somaiya.edu.

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