How to Explain Death to Children

Learn how to confidently and effectively explain death to children.
The death of a loved one is a life-changing experience. As adults, we have a lifetime’s worth of experience handling grief, disappointment, and all of life’s curveballs. Children, however, are mostly inexperienced when it comes to handling difficult situations and emotions — especially the reality of a loved one’s death and the concept of death as a whole.

Without guidance from an understanding adult, death can be a confusing, overwhelming, and even terrifying concept for a child. It falls to us as parents, grandparents, guardians, and other significant adults to understand how to best explain death to children in order to provide them with a solid foundation wherein a healthy understanding of the death and dying process can be formed.

Why Is Explaining Death to Children So Difficult?

Many adults feel a great deal of anxiety when they think about having to one day explain the concept of death to a child. Why, though, do adults feel uneasy when we think about discussing death with our children?

We’re afraid that we might not have all of the answers.
As parents, we aim to provide our children with security and instill within them the knowledge that we will always be there to care for them. When confronted with the subject matter of death, however, we often find ourselves worrying whether or not we’ll be able to provide our children with answers that offer peace and assurance.

You may not have all of the answers to all of your child’s questions, and that’s okay! You can be assured, however, that you will provide them a comforting, loving presence and be a bastion of security and certainty for them during this difficult period.

It can be difficult to talk to children — especially younger children.
When talking about a matter as complex as death, it can be difficult to know that we’re being heard by the child, and equally difficult to understand a child’s questions and responses.

Adhering to honest, short answers throughout your explanation, as well as in your responses to questions can help simplify matters for the child and ensure they gain an understanding of the concept and permanence of death. When dealing with younger children, it can be especially prudent to favor explanations of death as the inability to perform life functions — like breathing, eating, and moving.

We’re afraid that we won’t be able to adequately comfort them or provide them the help that they need.

After receiving the news of a loved one’s death and when beginning to understand the realities of death, children can display a wide range of reactions — with some emotions seeming numb and disconnected, while other children can display large outbursts of emotion.

Understand that, during this time, your child needs to feel whatever he or she feels. Regardless of their initial reaction to the concepts of death, you will be able to be their comforter and stable foundation during this difficult period.

We may be dealing with our own grief at the time.

We may be coping with our own grief around the same time we’re attempting to explain death to our children. When coping with grief, many shy away from potentially showing sadness and emotional vulnerability in front of their children, for fear of showing weakness or making the children feel afraid or insecure.

Know that it’s okay to be processing your grief at this time, and it’s important for your child to see that you’re processing your emotions and sharing them honestly — not bottling them up and ignoring them. Letting your child see you work through your emotions will let them know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or feel any other emotion that may come as a result of a loved one’s death.

Death is often a taboo topic.

Death and the dying process are topics that we heavily avoid as a society. Death was once regarded as a normal part of family life, with deaths most often occurring at home and among family. Now, the dying are very much a separate body from mainstream society; as such, we’re now uneasy in even mentioning the word “death” in conversation, defaulting to more comfortable euphemisms such as “lost,” or “passed away.”

Regardless of social taboos, it’s best to promote honesty and reality when explaining death to your child. Using gentler euphemisms to describe death, while well-intentioned, often confuse children. Your dedication to communicating openly and honestly with your children about death with serve them well as they begin to formulate their understanding and relationship with the concepts of death and dying.

When Is the Best Time to Talk to a Child about Death?

Many of us may consider keeping painful truths, such as the death of a loved one, hidden from children in an effort to protect them. In practice, however, this only serves to prolong a period of uncertainty and anxiety in children, who have a keen ability to pick up on subtle emotional changes in adults and in the home.

Though the desire to shield your child from the painful news of a death is grounded in good intentions, to prevent unnecessary anxiety and emotional anguish in your child, the sooner you are able have the conversation about death with your child, the better.

How to Prepare for the Conversation

1. Understand what your child will be able to comprehend about death at their age.
By understanding what your child will be able to grasp before you have the conversation, you can structure your explanation to fit their ability to comprehend the information.

Infants can grasp that the adults in their life are sad or angry, but cannot understand the concept of death.

Preschoolers may see death as a reversible, non-permanent event and may invent magical theories as to what causes death and what is related to the dying process.

Elementary School-aged children understand the permanence of death and understand the correlation of events that lead to someone’s dying; however, death is often perceived as an event that solely happens to other people.

Middle School-aged children have a full understanding of the physical aspects of death and its finality; however, some abstract concepts surrounding death and dying may be beyond their reach.

High School-aged children have a full understanding of death and dying, its finality, and the impact of a death on the lives of themselves and others.

2. Know what to avoid when discussing death with your child.
Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away” or “was lost.” These terms can turn your explanation away from the realities of death and can be very confusing or frightening, especially for younger children.

Don’t chastise your child for crying or displaying sadness and vulnerability. Phrases such as “suck it up,” “toughen up,” “you’re the man/woman of the house now”, or “be a big kid” can be very damaging and have long-lasting effects on a child’s outlook on death and overall emotional health.

3. Set up the environment where you will have the explanation.
Select an area that is comfortable, familiar, and allows for direct, one-on-one communication. Providing a safe space where children are free to express themselves and any emotions that may come over them is key.

Ensure the room is free from the distraction of computers, televisions and other electronic distractions that may divide their attention during the conversation.

Having toys, such as dolls, playset pots and pans, coloring books, and other playthings present in the room are quite beneficial in helping your child absorb your explanation. Play is the work of children and has been shown to be a therapeutic force for children when receiving information that is emotionally difficult to process.

Having the conversation about death with your child

You can use the following tenets as a general template for framing your explanation about death, and adjust it in accordance with what you feel will best serve your child’s needs.

Provide a simple, honest explanation of death.
When explaining death, particularly to younger children, it’s best to use simple terms that don’t shy away from the reality of death and its permanence. Adding unnecessary details or using long, drawn-out explanations can cause a child to stop asking questions altogether, as they often simply don’t want to listen to that much talking.

“Everything that lives, one day dies. Death is the end of living. When someone dies, their body stops working; they don’t need to eat, drink, or breathe anymore. It’s is not like sleeping. Once someone dies, they are dead forever and cannot come back.”

Keeping your answers short, simple, and free of unnecessary details can helps children absorb your explanation and keeps the pathway open for future communication.

3 keys to remember when explaining death to your child
While your child’s age and personality will play a large role in dictating what information is appropriate and useful when discussing death, incorporating the following into your explanation will help you inform your child and promote an environment of open communication.

1. Be honest and encourage questions.

During your explanation, let your child know that it’s okay to ask any questions that might come to mind. You may not feel that you have all of the answers as an adult, but that’s okay — you can respond to a question with an honest “I’m not quite sure about that.”

2. Let them know that any feeling that they have is okay.

Let your child know that this conversation is a safe place where they are free to feel whatever may wash over them. The death of a loved one is among the most painful and difficult experiences that people face; expressing and working through emotion doesn’t equate to weakness — it shows strength and demonstrates the ability to understand and cope with difficult experiences.

3. Let the child know how you feel.

In the same spirit, you must allow yourself to feel emotion and to show that emotion to your child. Children are very aware of how the significant adults in their life respond to different situations. By allowing yourself to truly feel your emotions while in the presence of your child, you demonstrate that healthy, happy, strong adults aren’t afraid to express emotions and that it’s perfectly normal to feel sad during such sad times.

How Your Child May React to Your Explanation of Death

The news of a loved one’s death and learning about the concept can be very difficult experiences for children. As they begin to process this new information, children may react in a variety of ways, each unique to their personality and temperament. No matter their reaction, understand and let them know that sadness, anger, and anything that they might feel is okay to feel.

Repeating the same questions
All of the new information about death, dying, and losing a loved one is a lot to process for a child, and it may result in them repeating the same question over and over. Know that this may not be the result of lack of understanding the news, but that the information is simply very difficult to accept.

A lack of emotion
This reaction serves to distance the child from the emotional pain of a loved one’s death, and the new understanding that they, too, will one day die. Understand that this is not cruelty or callousness on behalf of the child, but an automatic response to receiving difficult news and information.

An emotional outburst
Children may react very strongly to the news of death or the thought of death directly affecting them. These reactions are normal and serve as an emotional outlet for children to express the frustration, helplessness, anger, and fear that they may be feeling.

Regressive actions and behaviors
Children often revert to more immature behaviors when confronted with the news and concepts of death. Needing to be held, needing to sleep in bed with parents, and having a difficulty being separate from parents and other significant adults are common.

Common Questions That Children Have about Death and How to Respond

During your explanation, your child will likely have questions about death, the dying process, and who and what will be affected by death in their life. Remember: it’s okay to admit that you may not have an answer to a child’s questions. The following questions are among the more commonly asked by children — particularly younger children — and some ideas as to how to best respond.

“Will I die?”
“All things that live will die — animals, plants, and even people — but children are normally very healthy and won’t die for a very, very long time.”

“Will you die?”
“Yes. I’m a living thing and I will die one day. Adults normally live for a long time and watch their children grow up to be adults. There will always be someone to take care of you.”

“Why do people die?”
“There are a lot of reasons why people die. People can die from growing very old, an accident, or getting very sick with a very serious disease. A wish or a thought can never kill a person.”

“What happens after a person dies?”
“After a person dies, we say goodbye to them. They cannot say goodbye back to us after they have died; instead, a person’s family and friends gather together to say goodbye at a funeral.”

“Where do people go when they die?”
“When a person dies, their body stops working and can never work again, but there are a lot of people who believe that a special part of us — a part of us that’s not a part of our body — exists after our body dies. This part lives on in our memories of that person and lets us always have them with us to love and remember them after they have died.”

Should You Incorporate Religious or Cultural Beliefs into Your Explanation of Death?

Many of us draw strength from our faith and rely upon it to bolster our resolve during trying times, especially following the death of a loved one. While religion can be an important cornerstone of life for many, if it has not been a strong, consistent factor in your child’s life, it may be confusing or frightening when discussing death.

Should your explanation of death include your family’s religious beliefs concerning death, focus on helping your child understand the peace and comfort that your religion provides during such difficult, sad times.

Whether or not your explanation includes religious or cultural focuses, remember that the death of a loved one is a time of mourning, sadness, grieving, and a time to accept the realities of a loved one’s death.

Open and Honest Communication about Death and Dying with Your Children

Learning about death and its realities is something that all children must experience. Though difficult, you, as a parent or significant adult, have a tremendous influence over how a child’s thoughts and feelings about death begin to form.

By keeping honesty as a focus of your explanation and by allowing your child and yourself to openly express feelings and emotions, you lay the foundation for your child to develop a healthy relationship with the concepts of death and dying.

Written and published by CRHCF   ©2020 Crossroads Hospice Charitable Foundation, September 5th, 2016