When children ask: "Why do people die?", they need and deserve an honest answer. It should reflect their own experience and be expressed in simple language.
Young people are very observant; they are like little sponges, always absorbing impressions and information. They will have experienced things around the house getting broken,or wearing out. Parents can help by verbalizing the situation. "We have had this kettle a long time. It's worn out. Things don't last forever."
Eventually, children will experience a pet or a family member becoming ill and dying. The explanation can then progress to the next stage. People and animals have bodies that get old and worn out just like other things in this world. But, the part of the person that thinks, and knows and loves us, is called a soul, and it never dies. It lives forever.
They should then be reassured that those who have gone ahead of us are in a better place, and that we will see them again. This little story was published in our church bulletin and I have found it helpful when discussing death with children. The author is unknown.
In the bottom of an old pond lived some grubs. They could not understand why none of their group ever came back after crawling up the stems of the water lilies to the top of the water. They promised each other that the next one who was called to make the upward climb would return and tell the others what had happened to him.
Soon, one of them felt an urgent impulse to seek the surface. Up he climbed. He rested himself on the top of a lily pad. There, he went through a glorious transformation. He became a dragonfly with beautiful shimmering wings!
In vain, he tried to keep his promise. Flying back and forth over the pond, he peered down at his friends below. Then he realized that, even if they could see him, they would not recognize such a radiant creature as one of their number.
The fact that we cannot see our friends, or communicate with them, after the transformation we call death, is no proof that they cease to exist.
Read the story aloud to the children several times over a period of days. Give them time to think about it. Help the younger ones make connections if necessary, and answer any questions honestly as they occur. Don't expect perfect understanding or acceptance from your young inquirers.
We are all involved in a lifelong quest to comprehend the mystery of death. They will probably be no different. Each one of us will fully understand the mystery only when we are called to make that upward journey for ourselves.