There's probably not a parent around who hasn't dreaded that eventual question: "What happens when someone dies?" It's not a conversation that you can put off indefinitely. Our clergy offer insights on how to explain death to a preschooler.
Caren Heacock, pastoral care counselor and pastoral care assistant, Mattituck Presbyterian Church:
Depending on the time of the year, I might use a plant or a flower in a pot and explain where it comes from. I'd have them think back and back until they think of a seed. If possible, we'd dig in the dirt together, plant a seed and cover it (just as they might see done at a funeral or with a pet who has died). I'd ask them what will happen to the seed in a few weeks. What kind of flower will it become? Have they ever had a pet or someone close to them die? How does that make them feel?
Then, I explain to them that when someone dies, it is not the end, just as it is not the end when you bury the seed. Because of our faith, when we're buried, we are reborn in another place. Jesus Christ brings us back to life, and we live with him in heaven. Encourage them to describe heaven. What does it look like? What can you smell? What can you do there? Help them to understand that when you die, it isn't over.
I would tell them about John 14:1-14. These are Jesus' words where he is comforting his disciples before he leaves them, telling them that he's leaving to prepare a place for them.
I think of it like when a child asks about the color of the sky. You want to tell them all about dust particles, reflections and give them this long scientific answer. And all they want to know is that the color is called blue.
Sometimes, we as adults, as parents, make the answer harder because we put our own thoughts and feelings into it. Just listen to the question they have and answer that question. If they have a second question, then answer that one. Just answer the question they ask, not the question you fear.
I would explain death as a person going on a long trip that they can't come back from, so you have to say goodbye to them now. It they ask where the person is going, I'd tell them that they're going to meet God, and God will decide their final destination. I wouldn't quote scripture to them at that age, because they might not be able to understand it.
I'd also say to not push a preschooler to attend a funeral. Let the child's experiences and behavior determine how much of the death process -- wake, funeral, burial -- he or she should take part in.
We have to remember that youngsters experience the pain of loss of a loved one and have an understanding of that loss. You have to treat them like people. Include them in the bereavement process.
Of course, they still are preschoolers. So, I would start with the prayer we all wake up with: "Thank you, God, for renewing this gift inside me, the gift of soul and life."
I'd explain to them that this gift doesn't last forever, that bodies wear out. Therefore, we have to live our lives in a way that is worthy of that gift. In the Jewish faith, what we want to live on is the identity, how we live our lives, the way we touch people in our lifetimes.
I do think that the soul, the body's energy, is recycled in some way. If you have to go deeper than that, depending on the child's age, explain that at the very worst, death is like a deep, deep sleep. You want them to understand that death is not something to fear.