Talking to Children About Death

Father holding daughter
Explaining death to a child is never an easy task. Photo © altrendo images/Getty Images

At some point, practically every parent or guardian wishes there was a way to forever protect a young child from life's pain and suffering in order to preserve their fragile sense of innocence and the magical unspoiled wonder that defines childhood. Unfortunately, however much we wish otherwise, the realities of life and loss cannot be ignored and will intrude despite our best efforts.

Because of this, many parents and guardians wonder how to discuss the topic of death with a child when necessary, whether due to the loss of an immediate family member, close relative or a friend — or else caused by a tragedy elsewhere in the world that receives significant media coverage. Here are several suggestions to help your child better understand and cope with the reality of dying and death.

Be Honest and Direct

While you might feel tempted to use "softer" terms with your child when explaining the concept of death, you should avoid using euphemisms, especially with kids around age six or younger. Any parent who's regretted telling a child sitting in the back seat of the car that they would arrive "soon" — only to hear "Are we there yet?" 60 seconds later — understands that young children often interpret what they are told literally. Thus, explaining the death of a grandparent by telling a child that he or she is "sleeping" or "went away on a long trip" will likely trigger additional questions, such as "When will he wake up?" or "When will she come back?"

In addition, being indirect about death can actually complicate your child's grief response by causing unnecessary fears as children continue to process what they are told. Using a euphemism such as "We lost Grandma," for example, might make your son or daughter later worry that another loved one will disappear every time he or she hears someone is going away. Likewise, telling a child that a deceased family member is "taking a long nap" might make your child fearful whenever you tell him or her it is naptime.

Listen, Then Explain, Then Answer

Whether a loved one died following a long illness, for example, or perhaps unexpectedly because of a traffic accident, you should first ask your child what he or she knows about the situation. Children often perceive or sense surprisingly more than adults realize. By listening to what your child knows, or thinks he or she knows, you can then offer a brief account of the death that provides only as much detail as you feel your child needs or can absorb, while also addressing any of his or her initial questions or misperceptions.

A child's ability to understand the concept of death varies with age, so you should explain death in an age-appropriate but honest manner. Generally, it should prove sufficient to tell a child aged six or younger that a person's body "stopped working" and "could not be fixed." Six- to 10-year-olds usually grasp the finality of death to some degree by now, but will often fear that death is a "monster" or somehow "contagious," so your explanation should include reassurance that this will not occur. Those nearing their teens, or teenagers, will usually begin to understand the forever-nature of death, but also begin to ask life's "big questions" about their mortality and the meaning of life.

After listening to your child and then offering an honest explanation of the situation, you should allow your child to ask you questions — if he or she feels like it. Younger children will typically ask questions of a practical nature, such as where the loved is right now or if pets also go to heaven. You should answer such questions honestly and patiently, and be prepared for your child to ask similar questions in the days and weeks ahead. Older kids, such as preteens and teens, might not ask any questions initially, but you should make it clear that you are available to talk if/whenever he or she wants.

Be the Parent, But Let Your Kids be Kids

Finally, it's important to remember that parents (and adults in general) often focus too much on their worries and woes, and can lose sight of the fact that children are not "mini versions" of themselves. In other words, just because you have been thinking continually about the death of a loved one, do not assume your child is continually thinking about the loss, too.

Children, particularly younger ones, possess the remarkable ability to focus on something serious one minute and to laugh or play with complete abandon the next.

Therefore, as a parent, you should avoid projecting your grief response onto your child. Regardless of how you're feeling, try to make an honest assessment of how news of the death is affecting your child. Watch for changes in mood or behavior, such as acting out, a need for more touching or hugging, problems sleeping, panic attacks, or complaints of physical ailments, for instance. These could be signs that your child is not coping with the loss effectively.

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  • "Explaining Death to a Child." Retrieved December 16, 2012.