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How to Help Kids Who Are Afraid of Death From Coronavirus

Scared child worries that his parent might die.

 SolStock / E+ / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • While it's normal for kids to express fears about death, how you respond can determine whether or not they develop a healthy understanding of death.
  • Responding to their concerns in a healthy manner can help them feel better and increase their understanding of the circle of life.
  • To avoid confusion, it's important to use real words like "died" and explanations based in biology to explain death.
  • When talking about COVID-19 with kids, focus on health and safety rather than the risk of dying.

It’s tough to know how to respond when your child asks, “Are you going to die?” Your initial instinct might be to offer reassuring words like, “No, honey. I’m not going to die.” But these aren’t words you should say to kids.

After all, death is inevitable. And the truth is that you are going to die someday. This doesn’t mean you need to incite fear or fuel their panic either though.

Instead, use an honest, kid-friendly approach when kids express a fear of death—whether they’re afraid of dying themselves or they think you might suddenly pass away.

If your child has started expressing fears of death, especially in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the way you respond makes a big difference. Fortunately, responding in a healthy manner can go a long way toward helping them feel better and increasing their understanding of the circle of life.

Take Your Child’s Fears Seriously

Your child might bring up their concerns about death when you’re doing something fun or when you’re busy. But don’t just say, “Oh, don’t worry about that right now!”

Instead, stop what you’re doing. Sit down on your child’s level, and have a serious conversation about life and death. Show your child that you care about their fears.

And don’t just hold one conversation about death. Make it an ongoing, healthy discussion. You don't need to cite the latest coronavirus statistics, but honesty and understanding will go a long way.

If your child has been home from school for weeks with their usual routine completely upended, they may feel like things will never go back to normal. Let them know it is okay to feel afraid in these uncertain times, then help them learn to cope with these fears.

Learn Your Child’s Understanding of Death

Kids often start to express a fear of death as young as preschool. But at that age, they don’t understand death the same way we do.

They might know that dead people get buried in the ground. But they don’t understand what it means to be dead. So they may fear “being cold,” or they might think that being dead means you’re in the ground where it’s dark and scary. So their fears are more likely to center around how it feels to be dead, rather than the fear of really “being gone.”

Young children also tend to believe that death is reversible. So they usually aren’t all that sad when someone passes away. They might even expect the individual to return at some point. A child might think, “Grandma’s gone now, but she’ll be back for my birthday.”

Most kids begin to understand that death is permanent around age 5 or 6. As they begin to grasp this concept, however, they still usually lack an understanding of other aspects of death.

Most research studies break down the understanding of death into five subcomponents. Until children grasp all of them, they won’t really understand death. Here are the five subcomponents that contribute to an understanding of death :

  1. Inevitability – the acknowledgment that all living things eventually die.
  2. Universality – the realization that death happens to all living things.
  3. Irreversibility – the recognition that death cannot be undone.
  4. Nonfunctionality – the understanding that death is characterized by the body’s inability to function.
  5. Causation – the realization that death is caused by a breakdown in bodily functions.

As kids mature, they gain a better understanding of these components of death. Most children begin to grasp all five subcomponents between the ages of 7 and 10.

But until they understand these things, their fears may be irrational—such as, “What if Grandma comes back to life and doesn’t know the address to our new house?”

So before you start trying to convince your child that everything is going to be OK, try to gain a better sense of their understanding of death.

Ask questions like, “What do you think happens to someone’s body when they die?” or “What do you think are some of the reasons people die?”

Just keep in mind that you won’t convince a preschooler that death is permanent—their minds just can’t grasp the concept yet. But if your child is afraid that being buried is scary or uncomfortable, you might help them understand that people don’t feel pain after they die.

Talk About Biology

While you might be tempted to get into a long explanation about the meaning of life, your child might simply be more interested in knowing why you can’t move your arms when you’re dead.

Offer a short but simple explanation about how the body—much like a machine—eventually stops working. And all the parts in the body stop working too, including your brain.

Your child may have more questions, such as, “Can you see anything when you’re dead?” or “How come doctors can’t fix your body?” Just do your best to offer simple explanations when you’re faced with tough questions.

Some studies have found that kids’ anxiety about death goes down once they have a better understanding of the biology behind it. So be prepared to give a simple biology lesson that helps them understand why the human body stops working. 

Choose Your Words Carefully

We often talk about pets being “put to sleep.” This can be confusing for kids. They may think that death is the same as sleeping.

Sometimes, well-intentioned parents say things like, “Great-Grandma is sleeping.” But this just confuses kids even more. They may grow concerned that you won’t wake up when you’re asleep too.

Avoid other vague phrases like, “We lost him,” or “She’s no longer with us.” Kids won’t understand you’re looking for a polite way to explain death. They’re more likely to think someone is missing.

So use real words like “died” and “death.” Remind them of the biology behind it by saying, “Their body stopped working.”

Talk About Your Spiritual Beliefs

It can be helpful to share your spiritual beliefs as well. Whether you believe in an afterlife, or you simply want to say, “Grandpa will always be in our hearts,” kids can gain reassurance from a spiritual aspect as well.

If you aren’t certain what you believe, or you don’t want to force your beliefs onto your kids, you might share that people have a lot of different beliefs about what happens to us when we die.

You might give some examples like, “Auntie goes to church. Her church believes that this is what happens to people when they die… But our neighbor believes something different. This is what he believes happens to people when they die…”

Validate Their Feelings

Telling your child that you won’t die (and neither will they) might calm their fears for a minute. But at some point, they’ll learn the difference. And if you’ve denied that death is inevitable, they’ll conclude you’re not a reliable source of information.

So it’s important to validate their feelings. Say, “I know thinking about death can bring all sorts of scary feelings.” Simply putting a name to their feelings and acknowledging that it’s OK to feel that way can be helpful.

It’s equally important to avoid minimizing their feelings by saying, “Stop worrying,” or “Calm down. I’m not that old yet.” These sorts of comments may cause kids to think their feelings are wrong. And it can cause them to feel even more anxious.

Focus on Health and Safety

Somewhere between the ages of 7 and 10, kids come to recognize that everyone has some power to help prevent premature death. They may grow to understand why it’s important to take care of your body and why safety measures are taken.

If you’re taking good care of your health and working hard to stay safe (and keep your child safe), then focus on what you do to stay alive, rather than your risk of death.

You might say, “I plan to live to be 100. Here’s what I’m doing to stay healthy,” or “This is why we wear seatbelts and helmets. It keeps us safe.”

If you’re a worker who has a job that puts you in physical danger (and your child is aware), emphasize the steps you take to stay safe. Avoid talking about any close calls or mishaps in front of your kids.

You might also talk about how people work together to keep one another safe. Say something like, “All the doctors and nurses are working hard right now to help sick people. And we’re helping each other stay healthy too. That’s why we take turns working at the hospital.”

If you have visible health issues, or you aren’t always good at taking care of yourself, don’t pretend these issues don’t exist. Your child will know.

Instead, acknowledge them. You might say something like, “I know I should wear my seatbelt in the car, and I don’t always do it. I’ll try to get better about that.” Or you might say, “I take medicine because it helps my heart work better so I can stay as healthy as possible.”

Stay Positive About Life

If you have anxiety about dying, your child will pick up on that. If, however, you can stay positive about living, your child will pick up on that also.

Talk openly about all the things you’re grateful for in life. Discuss what a blessing it is to be alive and how you plan to live your life to the fullest.

If you struggle to do this, seek professional help. A mental health professional can address any anxiety you have about death and help you to feel more positive about life.

Address Media Portrayals of Death

Limit your child’s exposure to the news and to gory, violent portrayals of death. Such things can skyrocket their anxiety.

If they are exposed to news stories of a school shooting, or they watch a horror movie at a friend’s house, then have conversations about what they absorbed.

Kids learn a lot about death from the movies they watch and the books they read. But media portrayals of death and grief are often inaccurate.

There’s research that indicates media portrayals of death have been found to influence adults’ attitudes toward death. So it’s likely that children’s attitudes are also affected even more so.

In one survey where American parents were asked what prompted their children’s questions about death and dying, 67% of parents said their child’s questions centered around something they’d seen in a movie or read in a book.

Children may internalize unrealistic messages about death and the characters’ attitudes about loss.

When researchers examined 57 Disney and Pixar films, they found that at least one death occurred in 84% of the movies. And of those deaths, almost 32% were reversible (either physically or by characters returning as spirits).

After the deaths occurred, 63% of characters who lost someone responded either positively or without showing any grief or emotion.

The authors of the study found that these unrealistic portrayals were confusing to young children. But they could also open the door for parents and educators to strike up important conversations with kids.

Despite the unrealistic portrayals of death, there are also some healthy examples of death and grief in the media. Researchers reported that an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood centering around the death of a goldfish provided factual information about death. It taught kids that death was irreversible. It also provided truthful facts about how death is universal and occurs when the body stops functioning.

By depicting a goldfish, the young viewers were able to retain the information without feeling as anxious as they might if it were the main character in a movie.

An episode of Sesame Street, titled “Farewell Mr. Hooper,” depicted the death of a popular human character on the show. 

The episode portrayed factual and honest discussions about death and grief. It went viral shortly after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre when parents used it as a way to help explain death to children.

Show these episodes to your kids. Or look for other positive and realistic portrayals of death and grief in movies, shows, and books. Use them as a way to talk to kids about death. Pause at various times to discuss their understanding of what they’re seeing or reading.

Ask them if they have any questions. And then revisit the conversation a few days later. You might find that after they’ve had some time to process thoughts, they may develop more questions or have new concerns.

What This Means For You

Be prepared to have some tough conversations with your kids about death. But know that the fear of dying is normal and healthy. If, however, your child’s anxiety seems to be affecting their everyday life, you may want to seek professional help. A therapist might be able to help address your concerns and reduce your child’s anxiety.

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Article Sources
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