Talking To Children About Death

Five Stages of Grief Kubler-RossAt a time of great distress and grief, the thought of having to speak to children about the loss of a loved one can bring on an unbearable additional anxiety. We no longer live in a world where children frequently witness death as a part of life, and so it is hard for them to grapple with, and hard on us to try to figure out how best to break such tragic news to them and help them through their own, unique stress and grief. They go through the same five stages that we do, in their own way. Furthermore, they may sense and ‘feed off’ our own unhappiness and anxiety. Here are ten things that we can do to make this difficult task a little easier:

Talk about it when you see it in everyday life

Although seeing human death first-hand is rare for children, the deaths of animals, and the stories about deaths in the media, can provide an opportunity to open a dialogue with children and get them accustomed to thinking about death as a natural process, and to engage them in discussions about what it means and how they feel about it. The loss of a pet, or a friend’s pet, or the sight of a dead bird or animal in the wild provides an opportunity to do this. So do stories in the media about the deaths of famous people, accidents, and stories about war or epidemic disease. Literature, even children’s fairy tales, and television and the movies, often portray death in strange or dramatic ways that allow adults the chance to probe children’s knowledge and feelings on the subject, and help them deal with it more effectively when a more personal situation arises later.

Listen, be honest, patient, reassuring and calming

In the stress to explain a tragic event to a child, there may be a temptation to do all the talking. It is important to listen carefully to what the child is saying, and not to anticipate or judge what he or she says. If his or her response seems casual or harsh, pay attention not only to the words but to the child’s body language and facial expression as well. We can’t expect children to be articulate about this subject, so it is important to give them time to express themselves, and to give ourselves time to understand what they are feeling behind the words they say. We must also be reassuring, and not lead the child to believe it is someone’s fault (especially not the child’s) — children often take stern or tearful discussions with adults to mean they, the child, must have done something wrong, so we must explicitly avoid or correct any such misimpression. And as hard as it may be in the face of our own anger and fear, it is important that we remain calm, even if the child’s initial reaction is, as it is commonly, one of anger or fear.

Admit you don’t know all the answers

There is a natural tendency for children, faced with confusing and unexpected news, to be full of questions, some of which have no answers. There is likewise a tendency for adults, trying to make the child at ease in the situation, to try to come up with all the answers, in case the adult’s uncertainty causes the child even more unease — adults, after all, usually claim to have all the answers, or at least know where to ‘look them up’. Honesty requires that we admit, in these situations, that we “just don’t know the answer to that”. An answer that the child senses is made up, or not really believed, can create more unease and even distrust than an honest, simple “We don’t know”.

Talk about different beliefs about what happens after we die

We may be inclined to tell children what we personally believe happens after someone dies, to use this opportunity to give them this important message and reassure them (and perhaps ourselves at the same time). But even in such difficult circumstances it can be helpful to explain that different people have different beliefs about what happens after we die. This increases the credibility of your admissions that you don’t have all the answers, and provides an opportunity to turn some of the grief to learning and exploration, which is a powerful healer. Talking about these alternatives can discharge some of the raw emotion and at the same time help the child come to grips on his or her own terms with the consequences of death, and hence help him or her be better prepared for the next time they face the loss of a loved one.

Keep the message short and simple but be available

It is usually better to state the facts calmly, simply and briefly, rather than going into detail and trying to anticipate and respond to the child’s questions and taxing his or her attention span. Then listen. The child will tell you if he or she needs more answers now. It is not uncommon for information like this, which the child usually has no frame of reference to digest, to take a while to sink in. This is not insensitivity. When he or she is ready with more thoughts or questions, that’s the time to continue the discussion, so it’s important to remain available and open to such conversations, even if they continue for an extended period of time.

Talk in concrete terms about what will and won’t happen now — how the death will affect the child’s own life

This, too, can be difficult to handle, since the questions and concerns of the child may seem very self-centred, even selfish. Appreciate that children know they are dependent on adults, and need to know whether that dependence will be changed or compromised by the loss of someone close. Try to see the situation from the child’s vulnerable point of view and reassure him or her, as much as possible, that little if anything will change in his or her life, and if there will be changes, what specifically will they be, when will they occur, and what are the important implications for the child. When they are powerless, children seek and need consistency, and in these situations we should try to give them that as much as we can.

Avoid confusing metaphors about death

As a coping mechanism, adults often resort to metaphors — being “called to Heaven”, “eternal sleep”, “going away”, “passed on to the other side” etc. They have a calming and sympathetic effect on us because we know they are metaphors. By contrast, a child will usually take such expressions literally and can become very confused or distraught by them. If the loved one was “taken by the angels” could the angels come for him or her too? If death is an “eternal sleep” should we be afraid to go to sleep in case we don’t awaken? If a senior relative died “of a protracted illness” should we be terrified of dying every time we get a cold? Children often don’t have enough grounding in the beliefs of a religion early in their lives to be able to handle a lot of perplexing explanations about the afterlife all of as sudden when a loved one dies. That doesn’t mean denying one’s religious convictions, but rather, unless the child has been taught these beliefs before and is comfortable with them, keeping the explanations short, simple and factual, avoiding the use of confusing and unfamiliar metaphors, and explaining other adults’ use of confusing metaphors as just “adults’ way of talking about things” — not to be taken literally.

Be cautious of idealizing a deceased child in front of other children

Again, idealizing a lost loved one, especially one who died young, is a natural behaviour and sign of respect and appreciation for the deceased and his or her family. But this, too, can be troubling to surviving children who may feel they now have a burden to ‘live up’ to a near-impossible standard and to fill the enormous empty space that the deceased’s loss has left behind. That’s unfair to surviving children and they may well ‘act out’ their sense of resentment at being put in an impossible position. If the child cannot be expected to appreciate that the idolization is an act of kindness to surviving adults, it may be better to keep him or her out of earshot of such expressions.

Be careful of suddenly becoming over-protective of children

When a loved one is lost, there is a naturally tendency to become more protective of children in one’s care, but if carried to an extreme this can suffocate the child and cause fear, anxiety or resentment. This is something adults need to talk to each other about, to make sure they are not overreacting and causing undue additional stress to the child.

Prepare children for visits to hospitals and funerals

A funeral, or a visit to a hospital to see a dying person, can be very traumatic to children who aren’t prepared and don’t know what to expect. It’s important to tell them calmly and factually exactly what they are going to see and hear, including preparing them for the emotional outpouring of adults who are usually calm. It is more important that the child know what to expect than why, so there is, again, no need to answer questions that haven’t been asked. It’s also important that children have a choice about whether or not to attend these events. They should not feel coerced one way or the other. This decision of each child is a critical step in learning to take responsibility for one’s own decisions.

This list was prepared with the guidance and inspiration of several articles written by experts in the subject, most notably an extensive presentation on this subject by Dr JW Worden reproduced at

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4 Responses to Talking To Children About Death

  1. I would like to extend an invitation to you to join in on a collective blogging section of our upcoming winter issue of Reconstruction. The issue is the

  2. Mariella says:

    When my second son was 5 years old he had a heart surgery.. affortunatedly everything resulted ok. The first night we spent together(after the surgery) he began asking me about his dead canary, the dog, the grandmother….. what was dying… what happened then… I felt that little person had touched death…. he was so calm, so clear in his doubts…. I told him I did not know… but that I was sure I was somewhere before I was born… that I could not remember how it was, but that I had a calm feeling about it…I asked him ¿do you remember where were you before you were born? he said no, how do you feel about it?… he said fine…. I told him that for sure we returned there….. He accepted this explanation in a very senseful way because it was something he could feel in himself.

  3. MLU says:

    The best policy is to tell the truth. Of course, to tell the truth you must know the truth.

  4. I don’t have children, but if I did I’d most definitely make sure they had pets or get out and experience nature, because I think living with our animal friends helps kids learn a lot about responsibility, love, and compassion, as well as the cycles of life and death. I would also read Raymond Moody’s and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, Life After Life, and Moody’s subsequent books on the subject, with my kids. I’d teach them how to deal with smaller losses using the same coping methods we’ve learned can be helpful during and after the loss of a loved one. I don’t think it’s good to scare kids by giving them too much too early, but better to ease them into the harder lessons. It’s possible that too many parents want to shield their kids entirely, and do until a big loss occurs, because they themselves don’t know how to handle grief. Grief is inevitable, so we all need help preparing for it.

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