Is talking about death still taboo?

Sitting down for a bedtime story with your children can often bring up some interesting conversations, but from time to time there can be certain subjects you might choose to avoid at all costs, especially when it’s nearly time to say goodnight.

One subject that has come up a lot in our house recently is that age-old taboo – death!

Having lost both of my own parents at a young age, my children are naturally inquisitive about why they haven’t got paternal grandparents. At first, it was just a case of fobbing them off and improvising with a sort of pseudo-fairy tale type explanation that they’d become poorly and fallen asleep, or they were flying around in the sky on clouds or magic carpets, but my lame and evasive attempts at trying to soften and sugar-coat it just led to further scrutiny from them.

In centuries past, when life expectancy was far lower, the subject of mortality was discussed more openly within families, sometimes children would even be present at the death of the parent or loved one. But as time has moved on and people are living longer and healthier lives, death has somehow become less acceptable, harder to understand and talk about.

So why do we try and avoid talking to children about death? Is it because we want to protect them or that we think they won’t understand? Maybe we just don’t know the right things to say?

Sigmund Freud once suggested that by protecting children from the awareness of death, parents, in a sense, become that child and vicariously enjoy its imagined safety and comfort.

I think Freud has a point, I know from my own experiences that opening up the old wounds of grief can be painful and that not having to explain the ins and outs of cancer or alcoholism and heart disease would make me far more comfortable, but is this enough of a reason not to tell my kids the truth?

The writer Satish Modi described death in his book ‘In Love with Death’ as ‘essential’ and that it ‘makes life more meaningful’ to talk about it and acknowledge death, to allow us to look at life, to appreciate life, what we have and what we can still give.

It’s for these reasons that I felt I had to share my experiences of death with my children, so they can learn to understand that death is inevitable and that sometimes bad things happen, but above all that life is here to be enjoyed and relished, a lesson a lot of adults could learn from too.

For more information on talking to children about death please visit:

T: @eliistender10

About Giles Paley-Phillips
Each month award-winning children’s author Giles Paley-Phillips picks three of the best reads for kids.