How to Explain Death to Children at Every Age

Mom and son sitting on bed talking

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Losing our loved ones is an inevitable and painful part of life. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose when and how grief touches our families, and shielding children from the realities of death isn't always possible.

While a parental instinct may be to guard kids from those painful moments, keeping the truth about death from your child may not best for them either. “Children need to learn that grief and sadness is okay and normal, and that there are ways to cope,” explains Rene Guilbeau, Director of Child Life and Creative Therapies at Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

Death is a sensitive topic and it’s very important to consider your child’s maturity level when delving into it with them. Read on to learn how to talk about death with kids in an age-appropriate way.

Why Talking About Death Matters

Research shows that children whose parents were more willing to discuss the topic of death gained a better understanding of the finality of life and what it actually means when someone dies. However, those conversations often vary drastically by age.

Children can first understand that death is permanent around the age of 3. Over the next several years, they will further understand that everyone dies and that death is a result of bodily functions stopping.

Losing a loved one can be a traumatic event and often comes with life changes. Children often cope best when parents openly and honestly explain the concept of death to them in a straightforward way. This helps them feel safe and supported as they comprehend the loss.

"Talking to children about death at any age can help them to understand and process the idea, while learning how to properly cope with their grief with hopefully less fear, anxiety, and other confusing emotions" says Alyza Berman, LCSW RRT, a psychotherapist (LCSW, RRT-P) and the Founder & Clinical Director of The Berman Center.

When to Start the Conversation

Generally speaking, you might consider start talking about the concept of death when your child is about 3 years old. At this age, most kids can understand that death is something irreversible, though they might not yet be able to comprehend exactly why it happens.

"Create an accessible framework, such as the death of a pet, a bug on the sidewalk, or a character in a storybook," says Berman. "Getting them comfortable with this topic and conversation early will help them process better when they actually do experience the death of someone close to them. It will also signal to them that it’s okay to communicate and talk about it."

If your family is affected by a death, whether it has occurred recently or whether it is impending, it's important to start talking to your kids as soon as possible.

"Kids are very intuitive and will closely observe how adults are acting around them," says Dr. Guilbeau. "If their day-to-day routines are different, if other people are caring for them, or if family members are behaving differently—all of these will be clues to kids that something is going on."

It's better to open the conversation up early, rather than leave your kids to wonder what's wrong or why something is being hidden from them. That being said, take some time to prepare yourself and find a calm moment to bring up the topic.

Tips for Talking About Death

Ahead are some general guidelines and strategies for approaching the topic of death with your child.

Wherever Possible, Try to Avoid Euphemisms

Death can be hard to talk about, even as adults. Some people prefer to use terms like "passed away" or "a better place" to soften the topic. And while it may seem more respectful or sensitive to use this language, kids may need things explained explicitly and concretely.

"At a young age, [euphemisms] might confuse a child and make the concept of death harder to grasp," says Berman. "Additionally, some children may feel lied to or like you were hiding the truth, so being direct and honest will always work in your favor in the long term."

Consider using direct language like "died" and "dead" when talking to your child. Be clear that this person will not come back. Even if you have religious or spiritual beliefs, start by explaining death in a physical way. Research indicates that this comprehension comes first, and can help to support a spiritual understanding later on.

Give Age-Appropriate Details

Young kids need to know that the person has stopped living and that this cannot be reversed. As children enter the elementary school years, they may be able to understand that death is the cessation of body systems like the heart pumping or breathing. And teenagers might want to be told more details about how a sickness or specific incident lead to death.

Kids' developmental and maturity levels vary. If you're not sure what is age-appropriate for your child, start with the basics and keep the conversation going. Your kid's response may help you understand what they're ready to grasp about dying.

Include Opportunities to Ask Questions

Your child needs to know that it's okay for them to ask questions. Prompt them to see if there's anything they are wondering, and emphasize that they can come back to you with any additional questions that come up later. Remember that it's okay if you don't have all the answers too.

Provide Reassurance

Death can be a scary thing and often comes with many uncertainties. As a parent, your job is to keep reminding your kids that it's okay to feel a myriad of emotions about what happened. Reassure them that it is not their fault, even if you think they already know this. Let them know that you are there for them.

Questions Your Child Might Have About Death

There are many unknowns about the end of life, so questions are common. Young children may want to know if a deceased person is coming back. Remember to be clear and honest that this will not happen.

School-aged kids might have more questions about what death actually is. It can be helpful at this age to compare the body to a machine with essential parts that need to function properly. "You may need to explain death as heart stopping, or a brain not working," says Dr. Guilbeau.

Teenagers may want to know more about specific illnesses or injuries. They have more complex questions about the physical aspects of dying. They may wonder more about the spiritual side of dying too.

"Teens can view death in a similar way as adults, but they still may not have experienced death before and might want more details," notes Dr. Guilbeau, adding that some young people may not want to talk at all. If your teen resists conversation, don't push them. Just remind them that they can come to you at any time, should any questions arise.

It's also okay to answer truthfully when you don't know the answer to something. Death is a concept that carries a lot of mystery and uncertainty, and you may not be able to provide a concrete, tangible answer to everything your child asks. It's okay—and beneficial—for kids to understand that there are some things their parents or caregivers don't know, too.

What to Do if You Have Concerns About Your Child

If your family experiences a significant loss, you may worry about how your children are coping. Losing a loved one may have an impact on your kids socially, academically, or interpersonally. You don't have to navigate this alone. Notify their school or other adults who care for your child about what has happened and look into grief counseling, family therapy, or other services. If you need help finding these resources, start by talking to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Difficult as it can be, it's important to talk to kids openly and honestly about death. If tragedy strikes in your family, you may be tempted to shield your child from the truth. But this can do more harm that good in the long run. Kids who don't get a chance to get their questions answered often form their own conclusions about what happened and why. Know that the best way to help your child through a loss is to explain death to them in an age-appropriate way and to be available to reassure them, answer their questions, and remind them that they aren't alone.

1 Source
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  1. Longbottom, Sarah, and Virginia Slaughter. “Sources of Children’s Knowledge about Death and Dying.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 373, no. 1754, Sept. 2018, p. 20170267. (Crossref). doi: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0267.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.