“Princess Butterfly”: How to Explain Death & Dying to Small Children

Explaining death & dying to small children.

I used to feel like the word “dead” hung awkwardly in the air whenever I said it in the presence of my daughter, Zoey.  In time, I realized there was no getting around this word or its meaning and I shouldn’t be afraid to use it.  Death is a part of life and I couldn’t shield her from this fact forever.  When Zoey was about 3-1/2 years old, a dying monarch butterfly gave me the confidence to broach this topic with her.

my Zoey

She and her dad found the butterfly near our house and they brought it home to stay on our balcony. We named her “Princess Butterfly” and cheered her on, willing her to graciously fly away, but then Zoey lost interest.  The next morning I found the butterfly still, her wings flat on the ground and quite obviously dead. Instead of sweeping it away, I decided to use this opportunity to explain death and what comes after that to Zoey.

I told her that the butterfly’s body had stopped working and what had made Princess Butterfly, “Princess Butterfly,” had gone to Heaven. I said that up in Heaven she was able to fly again. I explained that we needed to bury her. We used one of Zoey’s shovels to dig a small hole in the ground. I placed Princess Butterfly in what would be her final resting place and let Zoey cover her with dirt. I asked Zoey to say something she liked about Princess Butterfly. She said she liked her wings. Then we blew a kiss up to the sky. She was too young to really understand the never coming back aspect of death, but this was a starting point.

Photo Credit: Monarch Butterfly Website

Photo Credit: Monarch Butterfly Website

Shortly after Princess Butterfly came into our lives we experienced death in the family.  My grandmothers passed away within six months of each other.  Upon each passing, I reminded Zoey about the butterfly as I explained their deaths and the funerals we would attend.  Naturally, she had questions and concerns, but I answered them as simply as I could and eased her worries.

 

It wasn’t easy and at times a little heartbreaking, but I’m no longer uncomfortable talking about death with her.

 

So, here are some “How-To’s” that I hope will be helpful for other parents as they approach this sensitive, yet important, topic with their own children.

How to Talk to Young Children About Death:

  • Use something tangible to explain dying/death

    .  Finding an insect (like a butterfly), as an example of something that lives and dies is good place to start the conversation.  When you come across a bug (or something that your child isn’t emotionally attached to) that is dead or dying, take a moment to talk about it with your child. Maybe even name the bug.  Then use it to explain the process of dying. In your own words, you can explain that dying is a part of life and that our bodies get sick or old and stop working.  Hold a mock funeral and bury the bug.  Let your own spiritual beliefs guide you in how to explain what happens to us after we die.

  • Prepare them ahead of time for what the day of the funeral will be like

    .  This way they already have a handle on things they will be seeing.  Remind them of the bug’s funeral.  Tell them that there will be a casket in front of the room and that people will talk about their deceased loved one.  Make it known that people may laugh or cry as they remember the person and that it’s okay to do both.  If they will go to the gravesite, explain that the casket will be moved there and will eventually be buried, like the bug they buried.  Let them know the cemetery is a place where people can go to remember someone and leave flowers.

  • Answer questions simply, don’t provide unnecessary information.

    Don’t elaborate, unless they ask you to.  For example, when Zoey asked me what happened to the bodies in the ground, I told her they just stayed there in the casket.  That was enough of an answer for her.  I didn’t want to put scary images in her head and left decomposition out of the conversation.  This was best for Zoey, at age four, but based on your child’s age, discussing this may be appropriate.  As your child’s parent, you will know what information your child is ready for.

  • Let them know it’s ok to feel sad and cry.

    Tell them it’s okay to miss the person that is gone.  Ask them to share what they liked best about their loved one.  Talk about good times that they experienced together and what memories they might have.  Look at pictures if you have them.

  • Make them feel safe, don’t make death scary. 

    The last thing you want is for your child to be afraid that they or you will die.  It’s a natural response for them to have, but don’t let them be frightened.  Hug them, ease their worries and let them know they have many more years before they need to worry about dying.

This will most likely be an ongoing conversation that will get more complex as they get older.  Ultimately, we all just want our kids to feel safe and loved.

At each of my grandmother’s funerals, Zoey and I blew a kiss up to the sky. It was a great moment  and it was then that I truly felt like I was getting this whole “death” thing right.

What was your first experience with death as a child? Was it scary or ok?

How did you broach the topic of death with your own children?

About Trisha

Hello. I’m Trisha Harmon and I’m a full-time working mom. My husband, Joe and I, are raising two amazing children, Zoey and Hunter. When I have free time, which isn’t as often as I’d like, I love to write. I’m currently in the process of writing a young adult novel and soon hope to begin working on a children’s book about Princess Butterfly. I also write about my kids and being a mommy on my blog Bottling Time.
You can check out my blog here: http://bottlingtime.blogspot.com/

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  • Anne Collins

    Welcome, Trisha. The blog was beautiful. Having lost both my parents around the age of 5 and several aunts and my remaining grandparent in the next couple of years, I felt I was an old hand at death at a young age. I knew that my mama was in heaven and it was just her body in the casket in our front room where people came to call in those days. It didn’t take away the ache in my little heart, but I learned to cope with reality and what was on my little plate.
    You will do great with your kids. You have the ability to put yourself in their little head and see things from their size.
    Bless you as you mother.
    Anne

    • Hello Anne,
      Thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry you had to deal with losing so many people at such a young age. I can’t imagine how difficult that must’ve been. I love what you said about being able to put myself in my children’s heads and see things from their size. I try and do that everyday. Really I find it quite easy to do as it doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was their size!
      Trisha

  • Trisha,
    My first experience with a funeral was for my brother’s rat that died. My own rat died shortly after his and I remember her funeral pretty vividly even though I was probably just 6 or 7. My rat, Penny, had a favorite blanket (towel really) that she’d nibbled some holes in. I cut the blanket in half and wrapped Penny in the un-chewed half and kept the nibbled bits for myself as a thing to remember her by. My dad gave me a wooden box to bury her in and he let me write her name and a little epitaph on the box. We buried her in the front yard and I know someone, probably my dad said a few words. It was wonderful, and although I was sad, I felt that she had been honored and that all the people that mattered to me had showed me & her they cared about us.

    I LOVE your blog here, the tips you have and ESPECIALLY that you held a funeral for Princess Butterfly and encourage people to do the same. Great idea!! Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful advice & giving others the courage to talk to their kids about hard stuff.

    • Hello Molly,
      Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to write this blog and be a part of your blog! Once I came across Princess Butterfly everything fell into place and it made explaining the hard stuff so much easier.
      Trisha

  • Trisha,

    Great blog and a topic that obviously comes up a lot at O’Connors as we shepherd families through this journey. Great insight and advice. As with anyone in this life, honesty is always the best policy. As you mentioned that does not mean you have to divulge every last detail, you can determine that depth depending on the age and maturity level. “Children can accept and handle the truth much more easily than being deceived.” Always allow children to be involved in the journey, do not prevent them but do not force them either. Preface them with what they will see, hear, smell and probable feel before attending a funeral. As a adults we must model the behavior so are children understand it is OK to feel, cry, laugh and just be sad. My first lesson in life was probably with my best friends dog when he died. A beautiful golden retriever that grew up with the both of us. We both cried when he died and did say words about what he meant to us. Fast forward and my children’s first experience was with our family dog Buck. We allowed them to express and create an event that helped them with their grief. We all need to recognize the importance of the life lived and acknowledge that the death has occurred. Thanks for your insight.

    Chuck

    • Hello Chuck,
      Thank you for your comments. I’m learning as I go with this whole parenting thing and you’re right being honest always seems to be best!
      Trisha

  • Hi Trisha –

    This is a great blog and story for all of us to learn from. As you know so many people in our western world as so afraid to talk about death & dying. Once we face our fears the lessen over time. I am grateful to you to be bold with your own self and your family and friends. I can remember when my dog Lilly died, she got ran over by my sister in front of all the neighborhood. My Dad showed up moments later, he grabbed a shovel and a blanket. He wrapped Lilly up and we dug her grave in our front yard to the dismay of the neighborhood. We placed Lilly in the grave and had a small meaningful ceremony to honor her life and the love she gave us for 14 years. It was the best possible thing my Dad could do for us, the truth is the truth and every life has meaning and value, we need to learn to honor it and celebrate it too.

    • Hello Neil,

      Thank you for your comments. Saying goodbye is so tough, be it to an animal or a loved one. I spoke at 3 out of 4 of my grandparents funerals. It was difficult, but it helped me say goodbye and at the same time I was able to share how they touched my life.
      Trisha

  • Lori

    Hello Trisha,
    Thank you for this very important post. I wish my mom would have had this information to refer to after I lost my father at the age of five. That was forty years ago when death, especially tragic death, was not discussed. Ignoring the truth in fact made it harder for me to deal with as I grew older. I think it is important that we are honest with children. Your approach is very good.

    Thanks again,
    Lori

    • Hi Lori,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry you lost your dad at such a young age. That had to be tough. Being a parent is never easy, especially when it comes to the hard to talk about things. I struggle with how to handle things every day and I’m sure I’ll make mistakes along the way. All we can do is the best we can with the tools we have at the time.
      Trisha

  • Carrie Bayer

    Hi Tricia, thank you so much for this touching blog! I think Princess Butterfly was placed in Zoey’s life just at the right time- to prepare her for what was to come. You did an amazing job of using the opportunity that Princess Butterfly gave you. My first experience with death was when I was 6 years old. My Great-Uncle Chick died & I went to the viewing with my family. I was very curious, went right up to the casket & stood on my tippy-toes to peek in and see him. I started to reach in to touch him but then pulled back, thinking I would get in trouble. He didn’t look real to me so I wanted to find out by touching him. My dad said to me (I’ll never forget these words) “It’s OK, Carrie. You can touch him. His skin is cold, isn’t it?” I asked why that was. He told me that your body becomes cold after your spirit goes to Heaven. It seemed to make sense to me then so I agreed. I’m very grateful to the lesson my dad taught me that day.

  • Hi Carrie,
    Thank you for your comment. I agree that Princess Butterfly came at just the right time, with just the right message! That is great that your dad was honest with you and answered your question with care.
    Trisha