How to talk to children about death, and some books that can help

Published in on 15 Oct 2020

When Matt Blake’s three-year-old daughter started to ask about death, he realised it was a question he wasn’t ready to face himself, let alone answer. Here, This Too Shall Pass author Julia Samuel offers her advice, including the books that can be the perfect way into life’s trickier conversations.

Image credit: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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At the end of a hot summer’s day, the month something she knew only as ‘the virus’ had closed her nursery and padlocked the playgrounds, my three-year-old daughter discovered a rat in the gutter.

“That rat is dead,” she declared with an alarmingly gleeful emphasis on the word “dead”, before poking it with a twig to make sure. Then she added proudly: “That means he’s not happy emy-more.”

Until that day, she’d never mentioned the D-word. And I would have thought what a beautifully simple way to interpret the meaning of existence, were I not so skewered by the existential horror of what she said next.

“Daddy?” she looked up at me, all unjaded eyes and ice-cream cheeks. “Are you going to die, like the rat?”

The early years of parenting can be like a long game of pin the tail on the donkey, only it’s always your turn, the blindfold is woven from a particularly thick thread of anxiety, and your child is the donkey. As parents, it falls on us to explain all the many ways in which life is harsh, scary and unfair. But death? Do I really want to tell her the cold, stiff truth, and risk giving her too long a look into the abyss? Or do I protect her innocence, feed her fluff, and hazard sending her out unprepared for real life?

I found myself groping in the dark with a very sharp pin.

This is a problem all too familiar to Julia Samuel, renowned psychotherapist and author of two bestselling books about death and bereavement: Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass. “Often we want to protect children because we also want to protect ourselves,” she tells me. “Many of us don’t want to face the reality of death and that’s what makes it taboo. But actually, if we really accept the fact that we are going to die, along with everyone we love, it does change our attitude and choices and how we live in the world in a way that is good for us.”

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