Everybody dies

My nearly-5-year-old daughter is going through some really deep thinking about life and death. I think she’s suddenly realising what ‘dead’ means, and can get really upset about it. The other day she was crying inconsolably about the fact that people die, and she asked if I would die. I said I would, but hopefully when I’m very, very old.
The thing is, my mum died of breast cancer almost 2 years ago (I wrote about it here, here and here), so my daughter knows very well that people can also die when they get very, very sick. So, to complicate the matter, she said that I could die of illness as well, something I could hardly deny.
And who would then take care of her? I told her her daddy would, but she asked what would happen if he would die as well. I told her her grandparents would take care of her. But what if they would die? Etcetera. Meanwhile she was crying her heart out.

How difficult it can be, to grow up, to start understanding some of the mean parts of life, and how hard it sometimes is to be a mum and to not really know the right answers…

Does anybody know of any good books or stories I can read to my little girl which will gently explain matters without being too depressing, and one that will hopefully calm her down a little? I really think she’s thinking about all of this a lot, and I want to guide her as much as possible without making her afraid.

Any advice is helpful!

xxx Esther


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17 COMMENTS - Add your own

1. bonita | April 7, 2010 | Reply

Oh, how sweet and endearing! My sons were like this at times too, and one son went through a phase last year of being scared about something happening to him.

Some picture books we have found useful.. frog and the birdsong, and an older book, also about animals, called ‘all the dear little animals’.
‘Badger’s parting gifts’ is a very lovely story about the death of an old friend, Badger.
And another book from the library was about a man in tibet, it was based on reincarnation, but not indepth or confusing, it was quite nice and poetic. sorry i can’t remember the name.
frog and the birdsong and badger’s parting gifts were most helpful, i think. the first of these is simpler, but quite a lovely feeling of life cycles. frog is worried about the bird he finds dead, and his friends help him.

p.s. just came across your blog today! hi :)

2. Sara | April 7, 2010 | Reply

Esther, I have recently faced similar questions from my 4 year old – my father-in-law passed away several years ago from cancer and my step-dad is now very, very sick with cancer and will not overcome it. My mother was successfully treated for her cancer last year but spent a lot of time hospitalized. It is hard answering these questions when really there are no guarantees for anyone. Also, they seem to ask at a moment I am least equipped to answer in a thoughtful way. I too would love a book too that helps explain these concepts gently …..In the meantime I try to make it all light and breezy like ‘it’s the cycle of life…etc’…

3. Courtney | April 7, 2010 | Reply

My 5-year-old is also starting to ask these same questions, and I just find it so heartbreaking. We read ‘The Giving Tree’ last night and he wanted to know why the little boy got old and why he was tired… “Will he die? What will happen if he dies? Will I get old some day?” etc. etc.

I really struggle with these answers, and I think it’s because I’m also a little confused about what happens, so it’s hard to discuss this all with your children!

This must be the age, however, when they start to ask…

4. Eva | April 7, 2010 | Reply

Esther, we are facing the same situation here right now. I have a 5 and a 4 year old at home and I am currently pregnant with my third one. Unfortunately, last year I had a miscarriage after 12 weeks (so after we had told the kids that there would be a sibling on the way) and the kids are still very afraid that their little baby brother in mommy’s belly might die as well. Sometimes, out of the blue, they start crying asking why their baby sister had to go to heaven. It is a very complicated topic the kids are addressing right now and I try to be as abstract as possible. I found a book (it is a Dutch book actually) which helped a little as it it tries to explain that even though people die they live on in our memories so they are not really gone. I must admit, that first I was afraid that this explanation would be a little too abstract for them to understand but so far this seems to make the most sense to them. It is called \De O van Opa\ and was written by Imme Dros. Maybe this might help you

5. kim | April 7, 2010 | Reply

My 4 year old is also asking these questions, at the weirdest moments! My mam was quiet ill few weeks ago and we had to cancel our visit to her so she could rest. My son made that weekend a drawing of 3 people and we asked him who they were: he replied: oma (dutch for grandma), opa Peter (dutch for Grandpa peter, my mam’s new partner) and my real opa (dutch for grandpa). the thing is he never met his real grandpa, who died 8 years ago of lungcancer! We have shown him pictures of his real grandfather, but not too often. As he knew his grandma was ill, he asked if she would join soon his reall grandpa in heaven, which made me cry…..

6. Amomymous | April 7, 2010 | Reply

Have you read the ‘Kikker en het vogeltje’ by Max Velthuis?
Really great book showing kids ways to deal with this difficult theme.

7. antonella | April 7, 2010 | Reply

I have 2 boys, but they are too young yet.
one is 3 yrs, and one yers (today!)…
I often tell us (the biggest), about God.
God exists and He loves him, us every body.
I tell him about Jesus.
I want they know that somone loves him, them, more over us, as parents…

8. Hanneke | April 7, 2010 | Reply

My daughter (age 9) has passed through this ‘what it means to die’ phase several times. Even now, the questions still pop up once in a while. The questions seem to get more difficult for a mum like me to have the right answer. More so, because I believe there is no right or wrong answer. So I recognize the struggle. Now a days, however, she understands enough about the death that I can ask her what she thinks happens when someone dies. I sometimes wonder who’s more ‘adult’ about the subject…
With my daughter it started at age 4 when a classmate was diagnosed with leukemia. Most classmates did realize he was really sick, but they did not automatically associate this with the possibility of him dying. My daughter did feel this right away. By the way, this young boy is still living, though still struggling to keep ‘healthy’.

Books I found helpful:
- Lieve Oma Pluis by Dick Bruna
Age 6 and up:
- Ballade van de Dood by Koos Meinderts & Harry Jekkers*
- De eend, de dood en de tulp (Duck Death and the Tulip) by Wolf Erlbruch

For my daughter (and me) it helps to talk about death than to avoid the topic!

9. Esther | April 7, 2010 | Reply

Thanks! I will check out your suggestions. I also think it’s important to talk about it, even though I can tell the whole thing really confuses her…

10. mariah | April 7, 2010 | Reply

Maybe Charlotte’s Web, both the book and the animated film? Not sure if you have seen it, but when Charlotte dies (and it IS sad, I remember crying my eyes out as a little girl) her children live on to carry on her “legacy,” so it offers the idea of rebirth, of future, of the cycle of life. Not sure if it feels outdated now, but I adored this movie as a child and I think it did teach me a little about a tough subject.

11. Les | April 7, 2010 | Reply

My 3 yr old seems to have a decent grasp of the concept of death through our reading of a book called The Lamb that explains the main message of the Bible in a way that kids can understand ~ (http://www.goodseed.com/products/lamb-eng-book/). Issues like death are dealt with in an honest, straight-forward manner, but never is the child left hanging. Hope is always introduced! I highly recommend it.

12. veronica | April 7, 2010 | Reply

Oh, poor little thing.

We’ve been very fortunate not have dealt with anything like that but I did buy a book for a friend of mine because one day I heard it on the radio and thought it may help her and her daughter. I read it and thought it gentle and beautiful and loved the way it talked about friendship and death. A little girl is best friend with the gardener and they do wonderful things together, the gardener gets ill and one day dies. It has a wonderful sense of humour and tries to de-dramatise something that we’ll all have to face one day.

And What Comes After a Thousand? by Anette Bley


Hope it helps. Best of luck

13. Emilie | April 8, 2010 | Reply

It is a hard one as even I am confused about life, death and all that goes with it, so how can a kid grasp the whole concept?
I think you are absolutely right, the only thing that really helps is talking openly about it, though it is confusing a lot will stick. I actually still remember having a conversation about death with my father as a child, it must have made a huge impression on me…

14. Alice (Thrifted Treasure) | April 19, 2010 | Reply

My eldest son who is almost 5 is obsessed with people dying at the moment too. We watched Nanny McPhee the other day and he got very upset cos the mum in it was dead and he was wondering if I would die, I got a bit upset too trying to tell him that I would always (please God) be here for him when he needs me and he would be a very, very big man before anything would happen me. A Sad thing to talk about and very heard to explain to somebody so little :-(

15. Esther | April 19, 2010 | Reply

The thing is, I don’t want to say things I’m not 100% sure about… I mean, I really do hope I’ll grow old and hold my great-grandchildren, but the thing is, nobody knows what happens in life. Complicated stuff, for sure.

16. Marianne in Hong Kong | May 13, 2010 | Reply

Hi Esther,

I came upon the book “Up in Heaven” on amazon.co.uk a month ago when my friend’s beloved dog died, and her 3 year old son started asking her lots of difficult questions! The book has been very useful, also for the mother!

Here is the link:

The author is Emma Chichester Clark and her books are very sweet, thoughtful and gentle. The amazon page above has lots of Listmania links with good lists by other parents and recommends similar books, which you may be able to find in Amsterdam or perhaps order online.

We went to visit the famous Happy Valley cemetery here in Hong Kong the other day, to soak in the history, and my soon-to-be three year old suddenly stopped in her tracks when I told her where we were going and said sternly “But I don’t want to die yet!” whereafter my heart stopped beating for a second and trying to disguise my shock, I laughed and said “Oh no, we are only going there to look!” Needless to say I am a lot more emotional after having a child when I see or visit a cemetery!

Even if one is not religious, I think it is comforting for little children to envision or believe in a kind of Heaven and perhaps angels, otherwise the idea of ‘nothing’ and vanishing would be quite harsh for such a young mind to digest…

Good luck

17. Esther | May 13, 2010 | Reply

Thanks Marianne! I will def check this book out. We’re not religious in our household but I do agree strongly about talking to children about some sort of ‘afterlife’…