What happens when you die? What happens when others die?

When our children ask us what happens when someone dies it’s normal to feel a little uneasy. Perhaps we might wonder what has triggered the question for our child, and whether there is something of concern for them. Perhaps we feel uncomfortable because it's a topic that stirs some pain and grief in us – most adults have lost someone close to them, leaving a place of heartache and sadness. Perhaps we are not comfortable talking about death because we still have questions of our own. Because of the emotional depth of the topic, we can feel anxious that we might not say the ‘right thing’.

Some people feel that death is not a suitable topic to talk about with children.
Still, most children ask about death and dying at some point.

This is a normal part of children’s curiosity in working out how the world runs. When children ask about death it is not always coming from a heavy emotional place, and we shouldn’t assume that there is anxiety or distress behind their questioning. Sometimes, it is plain curiosity. Children can surprise us with their bluntness and matter-of-fact approach to what are for adults more sensitive topics.

Questions from children about death are also not always about the deep mysteries of the afterlife. Often they are asking a more practical down-to-earth question.

When a child asks about death, keep an even and light-hearted (but not flippant) tone. Ask them what they think happens when a person or an animal dies. This will help you determine what part of the question they are most interested in.

Help them use their skills of observation. For very young children, this is often a question of working out the difference between living things and other objects (like rocks and water and Lego).

For older children the interest in the interaction of bodily functions and health become important. What does a heart do? What happens if it stops or gets tired or blocked?

When we put all of the different processes of life together – lungs breathing, heart pounding, brain thinking, nerves sensing, muscles flexing – we become more than just all the different parts. We become human.

Taking a biological approach isn’t the only way of answering this question, but it’s a good place to start – considering the complex systems that make up a life.

Beth Barnett

Beth is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the area of New Testament examining the constructs of maturity in the letters of Paul. She has held pastoral roles in Baptist and Anglican churches and been a long-term volunteer in the missions of Scripture Union, for whom she is a freelance resource writer and trainer. She teaches units in Children and Families Ministry and Biblical Studies at Stirling College, as well as guest lectures in other Melbourne, Australia, colleges. Internationally, she is a writer and facilitator in the Child Theology Movement.

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