Why Do People Die? Questions About Death

Oct 13, 2017

This episode of But Why is a serious one. We're talking about death. Why do people die when they get too old? What happens to people when they die? What does it feel like when you're dead? Our guide is Jana DeCristofaro from the Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Oregon, which supports children and families facing serious illness or coping with the loss of a family member.

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You may want to preview this episode on your own to make sure it’s right for your children. We also encourage you to listen together. We’ve added a few quiet moments for reflection and encourage you to pause the episode and have a conversation. Ask your kids what they're thinking and what questions arise from the discussion.

DeCristofaro told us that when kids ask about death, counselors will often respond with another question before diving into an answer. "The most beneficial thing is to ask them where the question is coming from and to ask them what they think," she says. "Often they want to share what they are thinking about more than they want you to have the answers."

She also shared some tips for explaining death to a child:  

  • Be honest in language they can understand and be concrete in your explanations. 
  • Avoid euphemisms like "passed away" or "went to sleep," which can be confusing for younger kids. Instead, use the word death. 
  • If a family member died from an illness, name the illness (cancer) rather than saying "he/she was sick" so they know it wasn’t a cold or the flu. If they associate death with illness in general it can make sickness feel scary.
  • Be prepared for repetitive questions and keep answering them. Young kids, especially, need to process through repetition.
  • The most important thing is to be honest with kids or they will fill in the gaps with their imagination, and that can sometimes be scarier than what’s actually happening.

If you need more resources, The Dougy Center website has tip sheets for every age group. We also recommend Sesame Street's tool kit for grief. The Dougy Center has a podcast as well, and there are many episodes for adults supporting children through grief.

Questions in this episode come from Hobie, left, 5, Vermont; Travis, 6, Montana; Silas, 6, Massachusetts; and Hollis, 8, from Vermont.
Credit courtesy from parents

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