BooksGrief and Loss

Lifetimes: Explaining Death to Children

It’s the holiday season, when we’re meant to be full to the brim with peace and joy and eggnog and cookies, and our houses are meant to be full to bursting with loved ones. All well and good, unless you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, in which case your table has an empty seat no matter how many places are laid. The first set of holidays with someone missing is extra painful, but this time of year, with its emphasis on family and memories, can make any loss hard to bear, no matter how old. If you have children, they’re grieving too, and you may find yourself facing some challenging questions.

E. discovered death shortly before his third birthday. We had always been open with him about the fact that his paternal grandfather had died many years before he was born, but it wasn’t until last spring that this absence started to matter. Within a couple of months E. had progressed from asking about why his grandfather had died, to asking if we would die, to asking if he would die and wanting to know the exact date.

Then he started to worry.

My son is prone to worrying, but his questions about death were clearly a notch above his usual levels of anxiety. They came out of nowhere, or so it seemed to us:

Walking down the street: “When are you and Daddy going to die?”

In the bath: “When am I going to die? Will it be tomorrow? Will I die when you do?”

Playing trains: “When are the cats going to die? Are they sick? Will they get cancer like my grandpa?”

In an airport departure lounge (shouting): “I don’t want to get old and die at any point! I only want my nose to get old!”

Every time he raised the subject, we tried to be reassuring but we also tried to tell the truth. We told him that no one knows when they’re going to die, but that most people live for a long long time and he was likely to do the same. We told him that Mummy and Daddy were healthy and that we were expecting to live for a long long time. When he became frightened of getting sick, we told him that getting sick with a cold wasn’t the same as getting cancer.

We felt we were floundering. His questions were so penetrating, so perceptive, but he was only three. We weren’t sure what to say or how to say it. I found myself wishing I could tell him some magical fantasy tale about rainbow bridges and heaven.

Then one of the teachers at his nursery school overheard me one day talking about the issue with another parent and recommended I get my hands on a copy of Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen.

A day or so later she brought in her own personal copy for us to borrow. I brought it home and asked E. if he would like to read it. He agreed.

We only needed to read it once for it to change everything.

Lifetimes is not a new book; it was first published in 1983. I’m writing about it for Grounded Parents because, despite my extensive reading on all things related to parenting, I never came across this book. My friends had never heard of it either.

It’s too good for a new parent not to know of it.

The beauty of Lifetimes is its simplicity. As parents, we are easily prone to over-explaining, to using fifty words when seven would do. Lifetimes explains death with only a few words on each page and with beautiful illustrations. Human lives are put in context- our lifetimes are just like those of all other living things on the earth. Some lifetimes are longer, like those of trees, and some are shorter, like those of rabbits and mice, but all are essentially the same. “They have beginnings, and endings, and there is living in between.”

Those of us raising children in secular households will appreciate that there is no mention of an afterlife of any sort. It’s short, simple, and clear.

I will note that the book, possibly because it’s now more than thirty years old, cuts the human lifespan a bit short, stating that people “live for about sixty or seventy years, sometimes even longer.” Given E. has healthy grandparents well into their seventh decade, I’ve adjusted the text to “seventy or eighty years.” He can’t read yet, so I’m safe for now.

After reading Lifetimes, I started hearing E. echoing the language it used. He talked about how the tree that had fallen down in the ravine was at the end of its lifetime. He told me that the cats were in the middle of their lifetimes. He told me, when I had a cold, that people got sick but then they got better. He’s asked if toys have lifetimes, if trains have lifetimes, if the world has a lifetime.

Yesterday, after he noticed his father had nicked himself while shaving, E. had these words of wisdom to offer: “Remember when I fell into the scratching post? I cut my lip and it bled a bit. But don’t worry, it wasn’t the end of my lifetime. I got better!”

He no longer asks when he’s going to die.

I gave the teacher back her copy, and bought one for us to keep.

Featured Image Credit: Chris Cooper via flickr


Angela spent her early thirties trying to keep her head above water while raising her son and finishing her doctorate. With the PhD in hand and her son about to head off to school, she now has to figure out what comes next. She lives in a southern part of the Great White North with her husband, her son, and two Antipodean cats.

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  1. I will be looking for this book for sure! A couple of months ago doctors were telling me my mother had days to live, and I was worrying about explaining that at to my son. She made a surprising (even to the doctors) recovery and is now living with us. Knowing how to explain the inevitable is difficult, especially in a secular family. Thanks for the post!

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