Explaining Death to Kids

A few days ago, a Little Muslims’ parent asked a question on facebook:

“Salaam! I had a question in regards to dealing with death in the family and explaining it to our children. My daughter is 8 years old and my husband’s auntie died a week ago and my child is very emotional about it… Do you have any pointers? Thank You!”

I would be happy to share with you what we have been doing with our daughter and what we believe to be a reasonable, peaceful, and hence Islamic way of dealing with this issue.

A few pointers:

  1. How you should explain death to kids is absolutely no different than how you would explain death to an adult! So my title is misguided…
  2. Islamically, you should at no point in time and for no reason whatsoever lie to a child about anything. Even joking has to be honest (I have been bending over backwards to attain this skill!) Hence, you should explore this topic first for yourself and then as a parent, so you can explain the truth about death to your child, in terms that a kid can understand.
  3. You should not wait until a loved one is dead to talk with your child about this issue. Do not avoid the topic when opportunities come up; face it head on… If they don’t know what to make of death and they see other ‘traumatized’ adults when someone dies, how can they face it?
  4. Now, let’s find out what death is so we can explain it to our kid:
    1. Death is given by God, the One who loves us and all creation infinitely.
    2. Death is nothing but a change of abode/place of living.
    3. We are in essence our souls, which is inside of us (rather than the body).
    4. Our soul (hence we) live forever.
    5. For a while we live here in this world, and then we go to the other world (Hereafter = insha’allah Paradise).
    6. So someone who dies has just traveled from this world to a new place of living (notice: it is not an end, but a change).
    7. We may be sorry when someone dies= but only because we will miss seeing them until we too go to the Hereafter where we will insha’allah meet them again.
    8. Other than that death is nothing to worry about, nothing to mourn about, and certianly nothing to fear!
  5. They may naturally keep asking the WHY question… but why mommy? Why do they go there? Why do they have to go now… etc?
    1. After you explain what death is fully as outlined above, there is only one satisfying answer to these endless why questions:  an answer based on the Qur’anic paradigm.
    2. Because God made it this way: He first gives us this life here and then puts us there (in Paradise insha’allah) to live there infinitely.
    3. Now the most important thing here is to teach them who God is so they can trust His decisions.
    4. God is the One who creates us because He loves us infinitely.
    5. Because He loves us infinitely, He always wants the best for us.
    6. Because He is the Creator of everything, therefore He knows what is best for us better than anyone.
    7. So it is for our happiness that we live in this world for a while (to learn about God and to learn to be better and better people) and then we go to Paradise insha’allah.
  6. Now a caveat and a related topic is Paradise (and Hell):
    1. We cannot be sure that we will go to Paradise, and there is a reality called Hell.
    2. But Paradise and Hell are certainly different in the Qur’anic paradigm than how we conceive them in our culturally-loaded and literalist religious understanding.
    3. Paradise is a state of being, which starts right here, right now: when and if we are mindful of God, we are in a state of Paradise in our soul.
    4. Hell is a state of being, which starts right here, right now: when and if we are oblivious of God, we are in a state of hell in our soul (i.e. stress, anxiety, fear, loneliness…).
    5. God wants us to be in a state of Paradise here and there (in the Hereafter) because He loves us infinitely.
    6. That is why He sends us messengers and guidebooks to guide us to Paradise here and there…
    7. He creates Hell here and there so that we will avoid it and stir towards Paradise… Again creation of Hell is also out of God’s infinite love for us…
    8. So for instance, when you explain the do’s and don’ts of religion to a child, how do you do that?
    9. We never use the term haram in our household.
    10. Instead, God teaches us good things (halal) that will make us happy, because He loves us infinitely and wants us to be happy (=better people).
    11. God teaches us what things to avoid (haram) because they will make us unhappy (right here, right now).
    12. When we do the right/good things God teaches us , we become happy immediately in our heart/soul… This is the beginning of Paradise here, which will last there.
    13. When we do bad things God tells us to avoid, we become unhappy immediately in our soul… This is the beginning of hell here, which would last there, unless we realize it and say “Oh no… God, I forgot and did/thought/said this. Forgive me and help me not to do it again…” and then immediately we feel Paradise again, because we reconnected with God 🙂
    14. So in conclusion: we also do not use the word Hell in our household. Certainly not in the way that it is talked about by ‘religious people’ who take things literally and therefore distort the inner meanings. When you talk about Paradise and doing right/good, by default you get the point across about the opposite reality (Hell=unhappiness=doing wrong) without having to say a word… so just stick to being happy and unhappy inside (inner peace)…
  7. Another tough question you will face is: will you also go to Paradise mommy (I will miss you or what am I going to do then…)?
    1. Yes, you will go there as well insha’allah. So do not avoid the question because you cannot handle it…
    2. Don’t be traumatized yourself when your child asks you this question; however uncomfortable it may be.
    3. Rather hug them and say calmly and with full trust in your Creator: yes honey, one day I too will go to Paradise insha’allah. And one day you too will go to Paradise insha’allah. And we don’t know when that time is; only God knows. But the beautiful thing is God has chosen to create you and me, and to give you to me as a child and to give me to you as your mother. What an amazing gift He has given us… We may be apart for a while maybe, but we will be together in Paradise as a family forever insha’allah… So let’s help each other to be better and better people insha’allah and try to understand God’s teachings to be happy in this life and to live in Paradise forever insha’allah…
  8. Do talk about those who have died with compassion and love (not sorrow and pain):
    1. My elder sister died years ago when I was 12.
    2. So when we talk about my daughter’s relatives: she has 2 uncles (my living brothers) and she has an “aunt Elif in Paradise” (this stuck as her name J)…
    3. Although she has never seen her aunt Elif, Yasmin loves her and talks fondly of her and certainly is excited about meeting her for the first time one day in Paradise… It is truly very sweet and REAL.

So to sum it up: Death is nothing but a change of place from this world to the next where we will live forever happily in Paradise insha’allah. We will miss the people who go there before us, but insha’allah we try to be good people and meet them there one day and live happily ever after all together… This is the beautiful and the best way God creates….

This is a mindset and a way of parenting

Now, as I mentioned above, you do not necessarily go through these in one sitting, and not only once. These must be in your mind and soul and consciousness, so that when the right time and place comes you explain these to your child one by one, and over and over again… So they become her way of seeing the world, God, and her existence…

Finally, I want to share with you a few anecdotes from our life.

Yasmin was only 3 when a then-new friend of mine babysat her for a few hours. She was a Turkish professor in the same university I was working, and her mother had just passed away. She was certainly in pain and having a hard time coping with this reality. I don’t know the details of their conversation or how the topic emerged but apparently Yasmin said something about going to Paradise and death…etc. My friend was appalled that a 3 year old was talking about these issues and almost scolded me for having mentioned these issues to my daughter.

In my opinion, Yasmin’s attitude at 3 towards death and going to Paradise were so much more realistic and peaceful than the 30 something year old adult’s qualms with death and Hereafter. And certainly as years passed by, I can see that we were right in doing what we did, because now, at almost 6 years old, she has the most compassionate, realistic and peaceful take on death and Hereafter. She talks of it as a normal part of existence; nothing to fear about (fear of death was never in her repertoire alhamdulillah); and certainly when God (God=whom she trusts more than she trusts her parents alhamdulillah) decides it is time for someone to go to Paradise, she accepts that in peace and moves on with her life in the right balance of emotions…

Plus, how do you avoid the topic without lying to them and deceiving them? They see death everywhere: at the park they see dead animals, dead ants… Their grandparents die one by one… Why would we want to assume that they cannot handle it? Perhaps because we cannot handle it and we don’t know what to make of it, so we don’t know how to explain it them…

Should kids be taken to cemetery visits?

Along the same lines, we highly recommend taking kids to cemetery visits at a very young age. Then it becomes normal for them. Of course you need to watch how you and others behave and say around the child. If someone truly does not know what death is and loses their control and say/do things that would scare your child and give them the wrong attitude towards death and cemeteries, keep them away from such experiences.

If you do not take your child to a cemetery at a young age, the chances are she will avoid them when she grows up. Simply because she has not developed a normal understanding and balanced emotions towards the issue. And as you all know, visiting the cemetery, talking about death are actually recommended practices in Islam by our compassionate guide, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) because it softens the heart, puts trivial worldly concerns into perspective, and reminds us of what is waiting for us.

I know of people in Turkey who has never been to cemeteries -moreover, they do not talk about death AT ALL in their households. They are adults and cannot bear to listen to a conversation on the issue. I have been astonished at this fact. This very family has recently lost a young member of their immediate family and I am praying for them, and wondering how the older ones but especially the younger ones are coping with this reality. When it is unavoidable, why not deal with it early on so you are more ready when it hits you?

When the Prophet cried upon the death of his son

Why then did the beloved Prophet Muhammad cry when his son died? Someone asked him this question- almost accusing him: you too oh Muhammad?! As if he were crying out of complaint towards God’s decree. And his answer was that he was shedding tears of RAHMAH… loving grace, compassion, mercy…

What does this mean? Why does he feel rahmah at that particular event?

Yes, death of anyone, but especially death of a child, is a trying experience. It is a gift from God- an experience, a window for us to contemplate His Infinite Rahmah and Wisdom… He is the One who chose to create this child out of nothing; He is the One who chose to bestow us with this gift of child, allowing us to experience the reflections of His Rahmah… Now, He is the One who with His Infinite Divine Wisdom chooses to part us from the child temporarily… letting us experience His Divine Attributes and therefore grow in our knowledge and love of Him…

***

I wrote and wrote and wrote… I apologize for this long answer to your question dear friend.

But it is just such an important issue and one that certainly requires the discussion of many other issues along with it…

Insha’allah you find it helpful and it helps our little ones to get to know who their Loving Creator is, and to trust in Him always… in every event…

With most heartfelt prayers,

Dr. Eren Tatari



One response to “Explaining Death to Kids”

  1. Jean Bagga says:

    This is beautiful Eren. Well written, heartfelt, and I couldn’t agree more with the approach!

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