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Talking to Children About Death

The age of the child and level of emotional development greatly affect their understanding of death.  Preschool age children may not understand that death is permanent -  if a person dies, it means they will never see that person again.   Preschool age children tend to wonder if they did something wrong or if they misbehaved and that caused the person to die.  For all children, regardless of their age, it is important to provide a complete explanation of what occurred, emphasizing that the child had nothing to do with the death, and that the deceased person is not coming back. 

Avoid words that are unclear or not concise such as the person went on a “journey, sort of like a vacation” or the deceased person fell into a “deep sleep that will last forever." Avoid saying things like “grandma went to sleep for the night and never woke up," or grandpa “had a cold” and “went to the hospital and died.."  The child may think the next time he goes  to bed, they will “sleep forever” or the next time they “get a cold;" they are “going to the hospital and will die."

While it is important to be direct and honest, you do not need to include every single detail.  You can say things like “her heart stopped beating” or “his lungs stopped working”. It is important to emphasize to the child that the deceased person’s “body is no longer working."

Children will have questions, so do not be surprised when they ask “will I die?” or “will you or daddy/mommy die?"  You can tell the child that normally people don’t die until they are very old, and reassure them that while everyone does die, you will live a very long time. It can become more difficult if it were a sibling or friend that died.  You can emphasize that it is unusual for a person to die young, and again, reassure them that you are going to live for a long time.

A funeral or memorial service can be helpful to a child when a loved one dies.  Young children should be given the option to attend; however, it is important to make sure the child wants to attend the service.  If they don’t, then their wishes and comfort level should be respected.  If the child does want to go to the funeral, it is important to prepare them before they go so they know what to expect.  It is also important that the child is given the opportunity to express their feelings.  Perhaps you could share memories of the deceased, and let them know that it is okay to be sad and cry.  Let the child know that their feelings are normal, and encourage them to talk about their feelings for as long as they want.

Similar to the grieving an adult experiences, the grief a child experiences is a long process.  It is not unusual for children to bring up the deceased at random times in the day or express that they miss the person.  The most important thing to remember is to continually encourage the children to talk about their feelings.