How do I talk to a child about death?

How Do I Talk to a Child about Death?


When a death occurs in a family or to someone close, it can be a tragic experience for everyone. Sometimes, adults think that children are too young to understand what is happening or that they will get over it quickly because they are young. Sometimes adults think the facts will scare, confuse or shock the child. Sometimes it is just hard to find the words. Over many years of experience with hundreds of young children, our experience has been that it is more helpful for children to know the truth, and also, that they want to know the truth when someone important to them has died. There is no easy way to tell a child that someone has died, just as there is no way to prevent the many feelings of grief from occurring.

We have found, and literature and research affirm, that the best way to tell a child the news is to be simple, gentle and truthful. Give your information in an age-appropriate way, just as you would any other information. Children may have many questions about the death. Try to answer them in a straightforward way so as not to confuse the child. Using phrases such as “grandma left us,” “your father passed away,” “she went to a better place,” “we lost him,” “she is only sleeping,” etc., can be confusing and frightening to a child. These phrases might make the child think that if the person was lost, why can’t we go find them? If they went to a better place, then I want to go there, too. Was I bad and that’s why she left us? If I go to sleep will I die?

Children of different ages will be able to understand the death in different ways. With young children, you can begin by explaining what death means physically. For example, “When people die, their body does not work anymore. Their body doesn’t feel or think or hurt or breathe or eat anymore. It is not like sleeping. They will not wake up and they will not come back. Usually people live a long time, but sometimes accidents happen or their bodies can’t be fixed.” Let them know that there will always be someone there to take care of them.

There may be many questions they ask about the death or your beliefs that you don’t have the answers to. It is okay to tell them that you don’t know. If you don’t have the answer, you and the child can explore the questions together. You don’t have to give them more information than they ask for, but it is best not to lie about the cause of the death. It may only become more complicated for you and them later.

Sometimes young children ask the same questions over and over after someone has died, and even when you have answered the questions already. It may be helpful to think of this as the way they are processing something they are struggling to understand. Rather than adding more and more explanations, it can be helpful to acknowledge the experience the child is having in asking questions repeatedly. Saying something like, “It’s really hard to understand death,” can be more helpful.

Once you have told the child about the death, they may experience some combination of shock and grief.  You can help them by talking to them about what they may be feeling. In shock, they may be feeling numb or disconnected. They may be feeling intense sadness or other feelings. All of that is natural. Maybe their mind is racing. Maybe it’s blank. Whatever you they are feeling and thinking, it’s part of that response to tragic news and it’s okay. Everyone experiences shock differently.

Grief is different from shock and is also a natural response. Grief affects the mind and the body and emotions. Sometimes it can feel like an emotional roller coaster as we pass through many different feelings or several feelings at once. There are usually ups and downs. The experience is different for everyone and it can last for a long time. There is no right or wrong way to feel; all feelings are okay.

There are no easy answers or simple solutions for talking about death with children. It can be helpful to start talking about death with your child at an early age. Every child will experience the death of a pet, or see a dead dog, or see the cycles of nature, or see death shown in movies or cartoons. Because of this, they have already begun to develop their own thoughts, ideas, feelings and concerns at an early age. These are all important times to keep the lines of communication open by giving them clear information about death and dying and to listen to what they have to say. Listen to them, be patient, and expect questions.

After you have told them about the death, please listen and be available, or have someone available, to support them in their grief.