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Explaining death to children

My lovely brother Chris died..

This is a photo of my darling brother Chris (RIP), pictured here with my mum. It was taken when Chris was about 17 years of age. This is the same Chris upon whom I have modelled the main character of my debut picture book. At the time of writing, October 2023, I am starting to put my second picture book together. It’s called ‘Lost Until the Light Comes’. My brother Chris’ character will also be found in it’s pages and in all the pages of the entire series that I am planning.

My brother died suddenly, fighting against an illness we didn’t know he had. He had contracted broncho-pnuemonia which resulted in sepsis (blood poisoning caused by the infection which escaped from his lungs and into the bloodstream). As his body lay in hospital in the early hours of one January morning his wife, Shani, had to deal with her own disbelief at what had just happened and her own grief. Their children were still in bed at home, being looked after by one of Shani’s sisters. 

She had the unimaginable task of having to tell their three children that their father had died. Where would she find the words? How could she tell them in a way that they could understand? Here is Chris holding their first born child. He was a very hands-on dad.

What Shani said to her children..

Shani is not Christian or Catholic but what she said to her 3 children amazed me. It still amazes me: The thing that’s deep inside daddy, the thing that makes him daddy-his essence- has left his body and has gone to Heaven.

Their children were all baptised as Catholics by this point and so they had some understanding of Heaven and that it is a beautiful place to go to: A place where we are all headed. My brother was a nominal Catholic, who wanted to protect his children from the bad things of this world. To this end, he decided to send their children to Catholic schools and was happy for them to receive the sacraments.

Their 3 children, aged between 3 and 7, didn’t see their father’s body as Shani felt that it would be too painful for them. In hindsight, I also feel that this was the right decision. At the time, however, I was more of the ilk that seeing their dad’s body would give them a sense of goodbye and closure and hadn’t factored in the emotional ‘smack in the face’ that this would have had on their young hearts.

Catholic parents explaining death to their kids

As a Catholic parent, you would probably use words like ‘soul’ rather than ‘essence’ and maybe even mention that a person’s soul will be reunited to their glorified body on the last day. Would you mention ‘Purgatory’? That’s a tricky one isn’t it. We all want to say that our beloved, departed one is somewhere blissfully happy to help ease our children’s pain… but the truth is…we just don’t know. It might be truer to say that your beloved, departed soul is on their way to Heaven and that we can help them leave Purgatory and enter Heaven by praying for their soul. What do you think? Purgatory, after all is a ‘place’ where we are cleansed to a greater purity and made fit for the JOY of the Kingdom of Heaven.


In my opinion, death should be a thing talked about freely, so that when the time comes to lose grandma or grandad, kids will be able to accept this as a natural part of life. You could talk about praying for your own grandma so that she can join the Heavenly party. You can show your kids pictures of when she was alive-and even in death. Kids will always ask the questions they need answering won’t they…

Books to read to kids about death  – ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’

Strangely, I got to know about this book through my mother as she lay dying in hospital. It is called ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children’ by Christian author, Doris Stickney. This is a read-aloud picture book for 3-7 year olds

My mum had breast cancer which had spread to various parts of her body, and while she lay in hospital, we were told that she had 3 months to live. In fact, it turned out that we only had weeks. Mum was moved back to her home so she could spend her last days in her usual setting surrounded by her loving family. But it was while she was in hospital that she first saw the story of the water bugs on the hospital TV. Even though she wasn’t really aware that she was dying….she would love watching this read-aloud on the TV. She would sigh deeply with satisfaction just at the mention of it. It touched her heart to the core – and I know now that God was preparing her for her own death.

You can hear the story and see the illustrations by clicking here. To buy the version in the video you need to go to Amazon in the USA. The UK version, above, is the one I have and is much smaller plus the illustrations are not as bold and colourful- though still good.

If your child has been bereaved, then using ‘play’ to follow on from the reading of this book might be helpful. The conversations that come out of this play might help you support your child better. To see how this can be done, please click here.

You can buy this book easily through Amazon in the UK and also in the USA.

Books to read to kids about death  – ‘Joseph’s Donkey’

Another good book to read to kids aged 3-7 years old is ‘Joseph’s Donkey’ written by Catholic author Anthony DeStefano. In this read aloud picture book we get to see Joseph’s donkey’s life. We see how Joseph and his donkey had a lovely relationship and how Joseph cared for his donkey right up to the donkey’s dying day.

And if you would like to buy a copy, then click here.

Death is not an easy subject to talk about with children. To support you with some strategies when talking to children about death and eternal life I can recommend 2 articles:

1. Discussing Death with Catholic Kids by Katie Fitzgerald.

2. Catholic Activity: Teaching about Death by Mary Reed Newland.