Where angels fear to tread

Allison Tait blog
Posted on August 3, 2010

The Scene: Little Ninjas, picture 20 little boys in blue pyjamas (with belts) rough-housing and rolling in the background

The Players: Me, Mr 3

The Conversation: Went like this.

Mr 3 (apropos of nothing): Mum, why do people die?

Me (distracted): They run out of puff.

Pause. I suddenly realise this is a Serious Conversation.

Me (hastily): Oh, and they’re really, really old.


Mr3: So, not just tired.

Me: No.


Mr3: Where do people go when they die?

Me (wishing The Builder was on hand, wishing anyone was on hand): They go to Heaven.

Mr3: Oh, like Harvey.

Harvey is my parents’ dog who died last year.

Me (hoping to end chat): Yes.

Mr3: And Dead Bird.

Me: Dead Bird?

Mr3: Yes, Dead Bird is next to Harvey under the trailer. They’re together.
Pause. I suddenly recollect the dead bird found in the parental garden one morning.

Me: Oh yes.

Mr3: It’s nice that they’re together.

Mr3: How can they be together? Harvey is in Heaven and Dead Bird is definitely under the trailer.

Me: Oh look! Mr6 just did a roundhouse kick!

I have come to the conclusion that I am terrible at the Big Chats. The Serious Conversations. Other parents seem to know exactly what to say when these subjects come up. I’m just desperate to avoid nightmares (there have been a lot of people behind Mr3’s curtains of late and I don’t want Dead Bird to join them).

Does everyone feel like this? I try for age appropriateness, but I don’t want to lie. And that makes for a difficult tightrope. Any tips on walking it would be most appreciated.


  1. Cate

    Goodness, I had a similar convo with Snowbear when she was 3 (she’s my BIG thinker).
    Scene: car on way to kinder
    SB: “Mum, when will I be 100?”
    ME:”In a about 100 years”
    Screaming tears
    SB:”But then you’ll be dead and we won’t be together anymore…waah”

    help!!! Please remember I’m driving the car at the time!!!

    Solution: handed sobbing child over to elderly very experienced kinder teacher and got her to fix it. The class had a wonderful age appropriate, student lead convo abt death and heaven and whether pets could fit in heaven or whether there needed to be a separate heaven for pets.
    She was fine by home time (poor little dot)(mum still waiting to recover)

  2. Kim H

    That was soooo funny!!!! All i can say is that i think honesty is the best policy for kids but I know what you mean re: tricky convos. Very tricky sometimes. Kids are so darn smart! LOL

  3. Diminishing Lucy

    Al, we are still in the mud with this.

    “All people called Tim & Will end up died in Hen” is what Lexie told me last week. (Grandpa Tim and Uncle Will have both passed away.)

    I have no idea.

    I made mention once that people and animals only die when they are ready. Charlie asked me to please make sure I was never ready.


  4. tinsenpup

    Hmmm… I’m not always awesome at age appropriate; I’m so hung up on honesty. My big girl is an anxious one though, so I gave this topic a bit of thought. I emphasised the notion that plants, animals and people usually die when they’ve finished their lives as life comes to a natural end. That’s why everyone talks about it when people die before they’re done – because it’s so unusual. And of course, we won’t be finished for an unimaginably long time yet.

  5. Looking for Blue Sky

    I’m *lucky* in that my kids go to Catholic schools here in Ireland and so they get answers to most of these questions in religon classes – in fact they’re most certain about stuff than me…for now it’s a relief. Over from weekend rewind x

  6. Shelly - Tropical Mum

    The only advice I can give about big conversations is to always ask, why do you ask? This is just to make sure that the “Where did I come from?” actually is about reproduction and not about what country they hailed from.

  7. cjtato

    I’m not great in these instances either. Especially when it comes to what’s appropriate for their age. It’s tough. I just kind of skirt the issue or sometimes even just wait long enough until they come up with an answer that they’re happy with and (as long as it’s somewhat plausible like those special kisses mummy and daddy have to make babies LOL) agree and move on. LOL

    Death we have touched on a few times (my FIL passed before any of the girls were born so it’s quite often a topic that comes up here) so our girls just believe what we believe. I find it harder when other people tell our children that someone/something has gone to heaven because we don’t say that so then we find ourselves having trouble explaining that. I guess as with anything the more something is discussed the easier it gets.

    There are a couple of topics, especially sex/women’s issues, I have just replied with “When you’re old enough I will tell you. It’s not something you need to know right now.” And so far they’ve been happy with that.

    Gah! I never know if I’m doing/saying the right thing!

  8. Jodi @ The Scribble Den

    I posted my weekend rewind today before I read your post. Same topic. I had a similar conversation with my daughter recently. It is hard, I don’t want to lie either.
    Parenting is tough when they ask the ‘hard questions’ isn’t it?

  9. Miss Pink

    I too struggle with these types of conversations.
    I very much want to tell the truth, but they don’t always grasp the truth.
    I tend to just waffle on about stuff, half the time i am sure it goes over Bluey’s head, but then i overhear him explaining things to his brother, or telling someone else and i think “Maybe he does understand more than i realise?”
    Sadly we experienced death in 2009 when my Grandmother died. Bluey probably handled it the most “correct” way (Greenie was still a baby). He cried, lots. He would just burst into tears at random moments and you’d be all WHAT? What’s wrong? Is everything ok? Are you hurt? And he would say “I miss Oma” and so i would sit with him and we would talk. I just explained death like people going to sleep but never ever waking up again and it’s sad because we don’t get to see or talk to them anymore, and so we miss them. Death is probably one of the hardest ones. Death and life, i.e. sex. Lol.

  10. Mañana Mama

    Ah bless, I haven’t come to this point yet…not really sure what I’d say..probably I’d also pull out something about a roundhouse kick!
    Not easy, this subject. I’m not sure most grown-ups know what to say to each other about death to be honest – it’s the unsolvable one.

  11. Mila

    A tough one to tackle. My friend used the caterpillar/butterfly thing. That when we outlive one body, we turn into another beautiful thing, and this changing of body never stops and never truly dies.

    A wonderful post for a parent to ruminate on. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Ry

    I too remember being on the child side of this conversation at age 6 or so. Though not easy for my poor parents, they gave it to us kids straight. It was our dear grandmother who lived with us who had passed away. They gently explained that she had “passed” and that though she would not be here in person, our memories of her would always be with us. I can’t tell you how much this helped just 3 years later when my father died of a sudden heart attack. Facing death for what it is, was better than a sugar coated explanation from my parents. It’s stayed with me like this for all this time.

  13. hearts_in_asia

    We’re not there yet, Miss E is barely talking so far, but I suspect I’ll be no better at the deep and meaningfuls than you are! Something to look forward to?

  14. InkPaperPen

    I don’t think any of us quite know what to say? I do remember being on the other side of this conversation: getting up out of of bed one night to ask my mum what heaven was like. She told me it was just like being asleep and having a really good dream. Most importantly, she told me she wasn’t scared of dying and this seemed to be all the 6 year old me needed to hear. Whether right or wrong, I will no doubt take on her side of the conversation when my boys decide to ask me. I loved this post…thanks for rewinding it! Gill xo

  15. Marion Williams-Bennett

    Love this post, as I too, am crap at the big chats.

    But for what I see hear,I think you are brilliant at the little chats, and I tend to think that it’s the little chats, the day in and day out reminders of what is important in life, that make the biggest difference.

    Happy Weekend!

  16. Kellie

    We have “unusual” chats, but not on the BIG stuff… yet! It’s hard as a parent to know exactly how to answer these sort of questions. So far, three-year-old Ella hasn’t had to deal with the topic of death. But I’m bracing for that day.
    PS. Loving some of the answers above too. Very cute! xx

  17. A Farmer's Wife

    Such a difficult one. We go with heaven. (Unless it is an orphaned baby lamb or something in which case we say it’s Mummy came and got it in the night!) The children think heaven is in the sky and when their great grandma died they looked upwards for quite a few nights afterwards wondering which star she lived on. And also if she was hanging out with any aliens….

    I loved this post.

  18. Ivan M

    Always give them just enough information to satisfy them. It’s amazing to watch the logic they use. The longest drive we have taken our daughter is Tamworth.

    Daughter: Who made the roads?
    Me: People.
    Daughter: Who made the people?
    Me: God.
    Daughter: Where is God?
    Me: Heaven.
    Daughter: Where is Heaven?
    Me: It’s a very far from here.
    Daughter: Is it near Tamworth?

  19. Stacia

    My daughter asked how her dad and I made her baby brother a few weeks ago and I stammered something about how I’d get back to her on that one … still haven’t managed to come up with a good, age-appropriate answer. And I can’t even imagine the tougher questions, like Mr3’s.

  20. Julie-Ann

    I think you did very well. It is a tight rope between telling the truth and being suitable for their age. I found it got a lot easier with age. And the teen years involve some very interesting conversations-eek.

  21. MultipleMum

    It is at about this point in the conversation that I think “when are their real parents coming to pick them up?”

    *Squirm*. It is about as much fun as “But how did the babies get in there Mummy?”

    I got nothing big sis. I think you handled it very graciously (esp for a person watching boys in PJs doing round kicks!)

  22. Maxabella

    It was Maxi-Taxi who first mentioned heaven (his fave subject at school is scripture, wouldn’t you know it!?) and I went with it. I was so glad I did because it gives children a real sense of place and perspective. They can believe in ‘heaven’ in a way that we can’t even imagine. Believing allows them to feel safer in a world they can’t understand. They will be able to make up their own minds as they get older.

  23. livinglifeasme

    It is a really hard thing to deal with and no matter what you say, when someone or something actually dies they are going to feel real pain. I found saying that when everyone dies their soul goes to heaven sort of worked, but with boys they were more interested in what happened to the body and bones. They like lots of details, unfortunately. I just fluffed my way through. They have both had to deal with death and they cry and grieve and they both have different beliefs in what actually happens. It’s just one of those things that is difficult to explain. A bit like how do babies get out. That’s a really hard one to explain to a boy between 4-8. I’d rather discuss death.

  24. Lucy

    Sadly I have had to have the death convo too many times with my three. Hate it. Still no better at it.

    Allison, I have read loads of books on how to deal with death and grief in relation to kids. The books all have “answers” but I am yet to find one that actually works well…….

  25. Tricia Rose

    The essence of these questions is that they catch up on the hop! It doesn’t bother a kid to see us thinking, it’s when we shy like a startled horse that they get nervous.

    I found it helpful to answer the one question, but not elaborate. The follow-up question is always at a tangent to my thinking anyway!

  26. Deer Baby

    I had a post in draft about this to go but it was so……depressing.

    They do just come at you out of nowhere with it don’t they?

    We had the whole chat a while ago when he was about 5. He’s 10 now. No pets to use as examples. He got very fixated on it for a while and it was very upsetting some of the things he said. But now he is quite matter of fact and likes hearing about all my dead pets and will happily stare at dead pigeons in the road and discuss exactly how they died. But no, I haven’t really got an answer for him. I wish I had.I fear it’s all going to get very real again.

    Wait til you get the sex one. That’s almost as bad.

  27. Tracy (ruddygood)

    Hmmm…this is a toughie to give advice on. It really depends on your belief system, to start with, and how comfortable you are talking about the “tricky” stuff (to any age group).

    Me, I just wade in there, boots and all. Keeping it age appropriate is not too hard, if I remember to stick to words of less than 3 syllables. 😉

    I think I tend to talk to kids as I always wanted to be spoken to as a child (and I *was* a precocious little git) – allowing a bit for age & ignorance, but understanding their need for information and being well aware of their shit-detector abilities.

    I think telling them well-intentioned porkies can really back-fire – they want to feel included and respected, and can tell when we are holding back. (But, at the same time, I also happily participate in the shared fiction of things like Santa and the Tooth Mouse and Easter Bunny, which to my mind is all about building a family mythology of special experiences.)

    Am I blathering? Did that help at all?

  28. Shauna

    I dont believe in heaven as in heaven vs hell but my kids all go to catholic schools so for the little ones heaven is an easy explanation for souls. As my boys have got older they have dismissed the traditional heaven themselves.

    Hope it helps Al.
    btw Al, Ive known you most of my life and I know you’ll do brilliantly with this stuff. Have faith in yourself.

  29. allison tait

    Thanks @Shauna and @Jen – good advice. I’m along those lines, but just find it all so awkward, particularly when centimetres away from Little Ninjas. As for you @Fran, am glad you are in the same boat!

  30. Anonymous

    I dont’ actually believe in the whole heaven thing but when Miss 4 started asking about death i found it was the least frightening explanation. I explained while our bodies hang around here, the part that makes us who we are (our souls/spirit) goes to another place. The idea that all her loved ones who arent here are all together in a beautiful place is very comforting for her. She’ll have the option to learn about other beliefs as she gets older. Good luck!! Jen

  31. Fran

    No tips, sorry… too busy rolling on the floor laughing. With you, not at you, I promise…. I have had too many of those conversational near misses with Miss M over the past couple of years – and I *still* have no answers. There’s just nowhere to hide….

  32. Shauna

    Al I don’t lie to them. Except for when we got zeus put down. Hes gone to ‘the farm’. I keep it as simple as possible and if they need more info they will ask.
    One tip would be to be honest if you don’t know the answer and tell them that. Or tell them you are unsure of how to answer and will have to think about it. We are only human and they may as well learn this real early.

  33. Shauna

    Feeling a bit fragile for this tonight Al.
    I do recall a chat with Michael when he was about 4 or 5 about a dead bird we saw and what happened to its soul. I cant remember what i said. Probably same as what i told my brothers daughter when she was upset about her dad being cremated. I don’t know if they ever believe what we say or just go along with it because it gets too hard.
    Al the big chats totally suck but are totally awesome all at the same time. I dread them and love them.

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