Conversations About Death: Parenting Without All The Answers


Of all of the talks and open dialogs I expected to have with my daughter over the years, this was not one of them. But there it is. It’s like a giant neon sign. A topic I never saw coming, yet it has smacked me in the face all the same. 

Death. Where do I even begin? HOW do I begin? 

Death: Parenting without all the answers

“Mommy, where is heaven? How do you get there?”

Our conversation started out innocently enough. I answered her questions the way I do all 78,692 of them, with a mild, even tone. Then I put that short conversation out of mind, because I assumed she would be on to the next thing. Only she wasn’t. This time,  it was different. I wasn’t prepared. I am still not prepared.

That oh-so-innocent conversation seems to be at the forefront of her mind, stuck there like a knot that can’t be untangled. Her questions and comments seem to be ramping up instead of fizzling out. My husband and I are perplexed. What do we do? No, seriously, what do we do?

Here is my compassionate, energetic five-year-old, who seems to be completely unsatisfied with our answers. And I get it.

I was about her age when I asked my dad the same questions.

For me, it wasn’t so much a question as a blank statement. I can recall, in detail, where we were and the time of day. It was evening. My dad was sitting in our 1980’s style tan armchair, made out of corduroy material, with dark wood trim. The t.v. in the living room was on. My sister was playing with her toys on the floor. My mom was talking with a relative. 

I crawled up in his lap and said, “Daddy, I don’t want to die.” My heart was beating so fast, because I was terrified at the thought. My father is a very gentle, compassionate person and when he imparts his wisdom on you, it’s pretty amazing. But he didn’t do so that day. For me, the actual conversation is a bit hazy.  I do know it did nothing to calm my fears, and I never brought it up again.

It’s a memory I hadn’t thought of in decades. Not until my daughter began asking questions. I asked my husband if he remembers asking his parents about death. He has no such memories.

My husband and I have stayed up late many nights talking about this and trying to decide what to do next.

We still answer her direct questions, but have decided it’s best not to say anything when she makes a bold statement.

If we are immersed in a game of tea party for example, and she says, “I don’t want to die and go to heaven,” I stay in her make-believe world and keep right on giving Mr. Bear some tea. But if she has a direct question, I answer it to the best of my ability.

In the midst of all this, we decided it would be best to contact our pastors to see if they had any advice. On our way to the meeting last week, I remember thinking, maybe this was unnecessary since our daughter hadn’t brought up the topic in a few days. It was as if my daughter could hear my thoughts. Right on cue, a little voice from the backseat asks, “Why do people take flowers to the cemetery?” Had we just passed a cemetery? I wasn’t sure. I guess we did need this meeting.

Our pastors had once been where we stand now, in the trenches of parenthood, just trying desperately to not mess it up.

During our meeting we talked about her comments and questions, what we do together as a family, and what movies we watch. As I rambled off a list of Disney movies and other animated films, one stuck out in my mind–Coco. Now, it could have been any movie or none at all that sparked this conversation, and it’s likely we will never know. But at that moment, it seemed like the most plausible choice. (Although truthfully, we have seen dozens of animated movies, many of which have tragedies. Charlotte’s Web, Moana, Frozen, Bambi, and the list goes on.)

While we went on to talk about lots of other things, my take-away is that I am not alone. And while I may feel like I am screwing this up, I am not. (At least I hope I am not. The jury is still out on that!)

For my husband and I, this has brought up so many questions for us as parents. 

Questions we are grappling with:

  1. How long do we wait to see if this fizzles out on its own before we look into a child psychologist?

     2.  What is an appropriate age to take her to a visitation and funeral?

     3.  With her favorite holiday on the horizon – Halloween, how will that impact all of  her current thoughts and feelings?

     4. Do I veto certain movies she has expressed an interested in seeing for the holiday, in fear it will only heighten her concerns about death?

These are just a few in a laundry list of questions my husband and I have asked ourselves lately. And while I would love to wrap up this post in a nice little bow with all of the answers confidently written out for you here, I can’t. We are still in the trenches, sorting through it all. So instead, I would like to cast out my net and ask this amazing group of moms for your advice and uplifting comments as my husband and I continue down this road on our parenting journey. 


Nikki Wildemuth
Nikki is new to the area. She graduated from the Western Illinois University-Quad Cities Campus in 2009 with a Bachelor's of Science in Elementary Education. She married her husband the same year. Nikki loved the creativity of teaching and continues to bring that same creativity as a stay at home mom. During the day you can find her chasing after her precocious toddler. By night she is a Pinterest junkie! She enjoys getting out and spending time with her family!


  1. For me, the questions about death are only difficult when we start talking about “what happens” after you die. The topic of death is fairly straightforward: everyone’s body stops working eventually. It can happen when you’re very old, like a grandparent, or when you’re young and have certain sicknesses. When your body stops working, it is buried (typically) and there is a gravestone used to mark your burial spot (she called these “Dead Rocks”).

    The “heaven” part is where it gets tricky. While my husband and I are not religious, I want my children to have the freedom to make their own decisions about religion. This is difficult when other children at school make definitive statements about heaven, and who goes there, where it is, etc. I want my children to understand that religion is a constructed set of beliefs that is personal to each person, and no one belief set is right for everyone and no belief sets are wrong, either. But other people’s strong religious beliefs, and their strong statements as if their set of beliefs is the only “right” one, make this really, really difficult. Especially when the people making those strong statements are children on the playground.

    When my daughter started asking questions about heaven, I handled it as best I knew how, explaining the Christianity information that I learned in church, and explaining which parts are based in fact and which parts are more based on faith or figurative in nature, and that everyone gets to choose what to believe. I present what I believe, and what my husband believes, on equal footing with what Christians believe (and I confess I should share information about other religions, but I just don’t know it… I should educate myself!).

    The goal being that she feels comfortable with her beliefs, no matter what they are. Would I prefer that she share my beliefs? Absolutely. But I won’t force it on my kids, even when they’re very young.

  2. Here’s the school psychologist’s take on your questions: I’m wondering, why gloss over her bold statements? She’s making them because she wants to talk with you. If you are scared to talk to your daughter about this topic, she will probably pick up on that. Why doesn’t she want to die and go to heaven? Is she scared about separation from loved ones? If she doesn’t want to talk about it, maybe she can express it in her artwork. Helping her name her fears and supporting the beliefs that bring her comfort is very important. Her view on death will mature as she does, but she needs a framework to lean on as her beliefs develop.1) Why are you considering a child psychologist? Does she seem obsessive about death or extremely nervous? Has she experienced something traumatic? Chances are, her concerns are the very same that all of us have regarding death. It’s a big unknown. So why not tell her what you do know. Then tell her what you believe if you think it’s age appropriate. Studies have linked higher levels of happiness and health with a belief in religion (and heaven), so I think your idea to expose her (and yourself) to some religious viewpoints may support her as she begins to develop a belief system that gives her a sense comfort. 2) There is no right age, but for many young children, death is especially frightening and confusing. I would bring her to a funeral whenever you feel she is emotionally mature enough to utilize some coping skills to deal with those feelings. 3) Halloween probably shouldn’t be treated as a serious commentary on life and death. It originated as a day to remember those who died, but it has turned into a big commercial party. Let her know that what she is participating in is just a fun opportunity to play make believe and act spooky. If she would like to do a special activity to remember the dead, try to keep that separate from the rest of the holiday fanfare. 4) How do the movies she requested deal with death? Is it handled in a reassuring way (ie: All Dogs Go to Heaven, the Lion King) or one that might be better for older kids (My Girl). Odds are good that she will encounter unsettling ideas at school or in life sooner or later, so if you are ok with the way the movie handles the topic, go ahead and watch it with her. Teasing out the lingering questions and offering reassurance will help her develop her own beliefs and coping skills so that she is better prepared when someone in her life dies. Let her know that you all plan to have many more years together on earth, and that whatever happens, your love for each other is forever (if you believe that). When I was little, it gave me a lot of comfort to believe that in the end, I would be reunited with my loved ones in a safe place. Still does, actually. Mr Rogers has nice clip you can show her too:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.