Explaining Death to Children: Preschool Homeschool

Explaining Death to Children - Mud Hut Mama

This weeks homeschool was a little different than usual but one of the things that I love about homeschooling is that it allows me to tailor our weekly lessons to my kids’ needs. Boo has recently had a lot of questions and concerns about death and, since Boo has been talking about it so much, Kooks has also started questioning. This weeks activities have been all about explaining death to children (specifically my children) as honestly as possible while trying to allay their fears.

To be honest I hadn’t really thought about how I would talk about death to my kids until I read this post at Mama Mzungu about a year ago and thought – oh no – I’m next! Since then I’ve definitely been thinking about it. Well a couple of weeks ago I got the question. Boo asked me if everyone has a Granny and then told me that her Granny doesn’t have a Granny because she’s never met her. When I explained that Granny did have a Granny once but that her Granny had died Boo asked how she died. I said that she was very old and that was why she died. Then she asked if everyone dies, I said yes. Then she asked if she was going to die and I felt so much less prepared than I thought I was when I answered “not until you’re very old.” Then Boo started crying and said, “but I don’t want to die!” This post contains affiliate links.

Of course we were in town so I couldn’t grab the book I had bought just for this occasion, Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. However, when we got home two days later I pulled it out and read it to the girls. I really love this book because it explains death without religion. It states that, “There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living.” The book doesn’t make any claims about what happens after death so parents (with or without religious beliefs) could use it as a starting point to explain death to children and then share their own beliefs in addition to the book. It talks about lifetimes for all living things and how some lifetimes are short (butterflies) and others are long (trees) and it corrected the mistruth I had told Boo when it says “Sometimes, living things become ill or they get hurt. Mostly, of course, they get better again but there are times when they are so badly hurt or they are so ill that they die.” It goes on to explain that can happen at any point in a lifetime. The daughter who had vomited in the car the day before then asked, “Does puking mean you’re going to die?” The book brought more questions and more tears but I felt better able to handle them with the book as a crutch and I decided we’d spend some more time talking about death, our fears and what it means to be alive in our homeschool.

Life cycle Sequencing:

I printed out a variety of life cycle coloring pages and sequencing cards:

After reading the story, the girls colored in the pages and we talked about the life cycle of a person. Then I cut out the other life cycle sequencing cards and the girls put them in order. I didn’t have to say anything about the next stage in the life cycle. Boo pointed out that the next stage was death and she got a little bit upset telling me again, “I don’t want to die.” I comforted her with a hug and told her that it is good that she doesn’t want to die because she still has so much living to do. We looked at the human life cycle printable and talked about all the exciting things that happen at each stage of our lifetime.

Life Cycle Sequencing - Mud Hut Mama

Allaying Fears:

It wasn’t the most upbeat week we’ve had. There were tears, there were fears and there were a lot of difficult questions but I feel good about taking the time to really listen to my girls and answer them in the best way I could. We only read the book twice in our week, the girls didn’t want to read it again and I respected that. Now it is on their bookshelf and when they are ready they’ll ask for it. In the meantime I tried to allay some of their fears by letting them know that it is my job to keep them safe and healthy and by focusing on what it means to be alive and all the wonderful things they have to look forward to as they grow up. I found our library severely lacking in books that convey the joy of living but I found a couple of titles on YouTube that helped to shift our focus.

  • If I Could Keep You Little by Marianne Richmond is a story about a mother telling her daughter all the things they would do if she could keep her little and the daughter responding with all the things her mother would miss seeing her do if she didn’t continue growing. It was a good fit for us as Boo and I had just had this conversation: “Is 10 old?” (Me: No) – “I think I’ll just grow to 10 years and stay there then.” – After some thought, “Can I be a Mama when I’m 10?” (Me: No) – “How old are you?” (Me: 39) – “Are you going to die at 39?” (Me: No, I don’t think so) – “Ok, I’m going to grow to be 39, be a Mama and then I’m going to stop growing.”

  • Someday by Alison McGhee is about a mother watching her daughter sleep and sharing the dreams she has for her daughter’s future. It really pulls at the heartstrings and I thought it might be more geared to the mothers reading it than to the children but when it was over I asked Boo what she thought the book was about and she immediately responded, “It’s about being alive, can we watch it again?”

Next week we’ll be focusing on The Dandelion Seed but I brought it out this week too because it deals with the life cycle of a dandelion and also the fears of one little dandelion seed that doesn’t want to let go. It gave us the opportunity to talk about the fear of the unknown and some of our own fears.

I would love to add some books to our home library that really celebrate the stages of life and address the fear of the unknown. If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments section.

Nature Walk:

We went on a nature walk to look for things that are living, things that are not living and things that were once living. You might be wondering if we’ll ever have a week without a nature walk but it is unlikely as we are thoroughly enjoying the freedom to explore our new home.

Wildflowers - Mud Hut Mama

We heard birds singing, passed tons of trees, compared dried leaves on the ground to green leaves on the trees, accidentally disturbed a wasp nest with wasps that were very much alive (luckily we made a quick get away and no one was stung) and picked up stones and sticks and seedpods.

Living Things Nature Walk - Mud Hut Mama

We also had to the opportunity to take a close look at an extremely annoying tsetse fly that had been harassing me the entire walk. I finally got her!

Dead Tsetse Fly - Mud Hut Mama

Arts and Crafts:

During our nature walk I asked the girls to pick up anything they thought was beautiful, when we got home they made nature collages. Boo found a piece of a fallen bird’s nest and Kooks found a bunch of feathers.

Nature Collage - Mud Hut Mama

Songs of the Week:

Difficult Questions:

Boo asked a couple of difficult questions this week: “What if you and Dada and Kooks die and I’m all alone?” I let her know that this was unlikely to happen but it also gave me the opportunity to remind her of all of our family and friends who love her and who would take care of her so that she would never be all alone. It was also a good reminder for me to put together an emergency action plan for the girls if something were to happen to my husband and I. We’ve recently moved from Malawi to Zambia and the girls’ guardians are in the States so now we have a plan (and everyone involved has a copy) to make sure the girls would have someone they know and trust looking after them until they could be placed with their guardians. Cordelia at Multilingual Mama also has great post that got me thinking about these same issues, “Wills, Life Insurance & Who Gets the Kids When You Live On The Other Side of the World.”

Another question was, “Since Dada is the oldest is he going to die first?” I reminded her that we don’t know when anyone is going to die but that both her father and I still had a lot of living to do so that chances are we would all live for a very long time.

What’s next?

This is obviously a conversation that will continue but I’m glad we started it now, before the girls have experienced the grief of losing someone they love. Living in Zambia where the average life expectancy is 51 years, I’m guessing that we don’t have tons of time before that happens. In looking for activities for this week of homeschool, I found that PBS has some great resources at “When Families Grieve” dedicated to helping families and children deal with grief (including the death of a parent) and YouTube has Sesame Street’s Goodbye Mr. Hooper where Big Bird learns that once you die you don’t come back. I’d like to start collecting other resources and good children’s books to keep on hand for when my kids first experience grief and I would really appreciate any suggestions (especially secular suggestions) in the comments section.

How have you talked to kids about death? 


About Jody Tilbury

16 Responses to “Explaining Death to Children: Preschool Homeschool”

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  1. Sandra says:

    This is a great post about death. My son went through a phase this summer with much the same questions, and I explained it much as you have (without the books though, but definitely adding to my wish list). Thanks for the resources! Will pin this for future use.

  2. Paula says:

    What a poignant unit study. I’m moved by how delicately and honestly you embraced this topic, confronting all the fears (your daughters’ and yours!) surrounding death and all the terrible what-ifs. Beautifully and gracefully done. I’m going to remember this post when the topic comes up more heavily on our end.

  3. Heather says:

    You never cease to amaze me with the way you handle whatever life just throws at you, and build it into your curriculum! I think you dealt with it rather well. I liked your life cycles too – great way to illustrate the process of life. I hope I remember this post when the time comes, that book sounds interesting.

  4. Lisa Nelson says:

    You know, when I was a kid, I was very afraid of death. It’s funny, the kids and I talk about it all the time – but it’s the normal sequence of life. I know this is very unique to us – but having the church really helps in this regard. It makes it a passage into something that’s better – rather than it being a final thing – like you are gone and there is nothing left. The world goes on without you. KWIM? To me, just being gone with nothing is a scary thought.

    Anyway, when grammy died (who we were all very close to) we cried a bit, but enjoy the thoughts that she has a better life elsewhere – free of the pains this earthly life brought her.

    I guess it’s a different perspective – but oh well.

    I do love the book suggestions and am pinning to our Mommy Monday Blog Hop Pinterest board. This is something all parents will face sooner or later.

    Thanks so much for this awesome post!

  5. Penny says:

    Miss Possum has asked me a few times but I’ve never explained it that well to her. I love that you brought in life cycles at that time. That was a perfect idea! Wish I had thought of it!

  6. Becky says:

    I think you did a fantastic job of handling this question! My 4 year old son started asking this question not too long ago. My answer was always, “Yes, one day we will all die. But God doesn’t want us to be fearful or worry about it. He just wants us to live and love Him today.”
    Thank you for sharing about this tough topic in such a developmentally appropriate way. 🙂

  7. What a beautiful post! Someone close to us recently passed away, and I’ve been avoiding addressing it with my son because I don’t want to scare him. At the same time it is such an opportunity to lay a foundation for a healthy for of this life and the next. So thank you so much for these great ideas and resources. You are such a wise mama! It must be hard to find resources that aren’t from a particular religious perspective.

  8. TK says:

    This was certainly very inspiring to read. It’s wonderful that you’re homeschooling and I love the way you are teaching your children all they need to know about life through your lessons.

  9. I picked up the book “Someday” back when my oldest was an infant. Oh my goodness- I get chills and tears in my eyes just thinking about that book. I love it but can’t read it without getting all emotional and sentimental.

    This is such a great and helpful post, Jody. I’m going to Pin it to one of my Pinterest boards so I can come back to it when the inevitable questions start up.

  10. Heather says:

    Hi Jody! I was hoping you could answer my question I have about your blog! My name is Heather and if you could email me when you get a free moment I would greatly appreciate it!

  11. Mike’s dad died before the kids were born, and then both my grandfathers died a couple summers ago, so death has come up a fair bit – and my son, especially, really struggled with it (I’m sure the fact that everyone dying was male did not help). Two years later, he is learning to understand it rather than be terrified by it. You have some excellent resources in this post – I’ll be pinning to my parenting board.

    • Jody Tilbury says:

      Thank you MaryAnne – I’d love to hear about any resources or children’s books you have used.

  12. Tracy K says:

    Wow! Can’t believe I missed this post, and just when I needed it.

    We have a book that is called The Dragonfly Door. It uses the metamorphism of a nymph to a dragonfly to explain death and leaves the story sort of open to interpretation as far as where we go after we die. What I really found useful about it was it opened the door to discussing unresolved relationships, and also using memories as comfort.

    Some really great resources in this post though. Lucky girls 🙂