How do you tell a child that a loved one has died?
When a loved one passes, handling grief can be difficult enough for us grown-ups, and talking to children about death can be more difficult still.
Yet children too must grieve, and helping a child through the loss of a loved one – be it a sibling, parent, grandparent, or friend – doesn’t have to be intimidating.
Here is some guidance on talking to children about death, loss, and grief.
How to Talk to Children About the Death of a Loved One
Talking to children about death can be confusing to them. This gets worse when adults obscure the reality of the situation with untruths or half-truths, like “Grandpa went away.” If Grandpa “went away,” then it makes sense that someday he might come back. This is not true, so it is not helpful to the child.
Still, you want to use language that is age-appropriate. Be frank, but don’t overwhelm them with too many blunt facts. Keep it simple.
Younger children may keep asking for their deceased loved one. They may not understand the concept of death. Continue to be patient and explain it as many times as your child needs it to be explained.
Death can be scary for all of us. Children will have many questions and anxieties concerning death.
A few helpful reminders to consider are:
- Be honest – When someone dies, they don’t come back.
- Remember their loved one – Talk openly about Grandpa. “Grandpa loved it when we baked his favorite cookies!”
- Be straightforward – “Grandpa died. He is not sleeping.”
- Keep hopeful – “We are going to make it through this.”
Helpful Resources: 101 Books for Children About Death
How to Tell a Child About the Death of a Parent
Losing a parent is never easy, regardless if you are a small child or an adult child.
A child will feel abandoned, shocked, hurt, anxious, and confused – just to name a few of the emotions.
Here are a few helpful tips in talking to children about the death of a parent.
1. Language matters.
Don’t use euphemisms like “sleeping” or “we lost mama today.” This gives a child the wrong idea of what has actually happened.
Be direct. Speaking bluntly will help a child to grasp the idea more easily. Give the understanding that death is permanent.
- “Mommy died today. She will not be coming back.”
- “We took Daddy to the hospital this morning. He has been very sick. Daddy died there, and he won’t be coming home again.”
2. Choose comforting words.
It’s important to reassure your kids. Let them know they are still safe and loved.
- “Mommy was in a car accident today. She died. She won’t be back home again. But I am here, and I love you. I will take care of you.“
- “I am not going anywhere.”
- “Daddy will take good care of himself and be careful.”
3. Explain what’s next.
Children may not understand the concept of a viewing, funeral, or burial.
Try to include them in choosing flowers or other smaller decisions. Let your child help pick out clothes for Mom or Dad to be buried in. Including the kids in decision making will give them a sense of involvement.
Discuss what it will be like seeing their parent in a casket at the viewing and funeral service.
- “Daddy will be dressed in his Sunday suit.”
- “He will look like he is sleeping peacefully. But he is not sleeping; he is dead.”
- “Daddy will not open his eyes.”
- “If you touch Daddy, he will feel very cold.”
- “This will be the last time you will see Daddy.”
4. Express your sympathy.
Let your child know you are “sorry for their loss.”
- “I am so sorry, Mommy died.”
- “Sometimes, when someone dies, we feel like it is our fault. It is not.”
- “I know you are going to miss Daddy; I am sorry.”
5. Share your family’s religious or spiritual beliefs about death.
Comfort your child with the beliefs they have been raised with.
- “Mommy is in heaven.”
- “Daddy is with the angels.”
- “Mommy is looking down on you.”
How to Tell a Child About the Death of a Grandparent
Losing a grandparent maybe your child’s first time to deal with death. Explain that death is a natural part of life.
Tell the truth right away. Don’t avoid your child or the conversation. They will wonder why you are crying and upset; it is best to be forthright. Make sure to use the words “dead” and “died.”
- “Grandma has had cancer for a long time. Today she died.”
- “Grandpa was very old. His heart just stopped working, and he died.”
How to Tell a Child About the Death of a Pet
Pets are part of your family too. We love and dote on them. Often, the family pet is your child’s playmate.
When talking about the death of your pet, it is best to use simple, direct language.
- “Fluffy was in too much pain. There was nothing the veterinarian could do. He helped her die peacefully.” If a pet has to be euthanized, it is best to explain why it had to happen.
- “Pepper was hit by a car this morning. He died.” Spare your child from any gory details of the accident.
- “We will bury Fluffy in our back yard.” or “We will have Pepper cremated.” Discuss with your child what will happen next.
Research has told us not to rush out to get another pet. The grieving process takes more or less 6 months to work through.
How to Tell a Child They Are Dying
Conversations about death and dying can be hard. But they are especially hard for parents talking to their terminally ill children. It’s not easy, because as a parent, we don’t want to give up hope.
Having a conversation with your child about their imminent death can help put their mind at ease. It can also help parents know what their child’s final wishes are.
It has been long thought that talking to children and preparing them for their death is taboo. Pediatric specialists are now saying that it is “okay” to talk to your children regarding their own demise. Doctors say that the children are often thinking about their death before it is ever mentioned.
Discuss your child’s final wishes with them. Cremation or burial? Letting your child make (some) decisions about their funeral will empower them.
How to Tell a Child Their Parent Is Dying (Or Other Loved Ones)
Adults struggle with discussing death with each other. Imagine how much harder it would be to talk to a child about a loved one in the process of dying.
Still, it’s important to talk about the immanent death of their parent sooner rather than later. They will be able to process it better as events unfold. (They will probably begin experiencing what is called “anticipatory grief” as well.)
Make sure that the news comes from a person that the child trusts. If at all possible, include the dying parent in the conversation.
Prepare yourself ahead of time. You don’t want to fall apart as you talk, but remember that it’s actually a good thing for you to show emotion in front of your child. This lets them know it’s okay to show their own feelings.
Be ready for questions. Even strange ones. A few kids will have lots of questions, and some won’t. Some want more details than others. Your child’s age will determine how much information you give them.
Don’t be surprised if the child’s reaction doesn’t fit your expectations. They may cry, or they may take it all in and then ask for a snack. Give them the emotional “space” to process. Over time, they’ll begin to work through it.
As you learn more about the illness and its progression, share some (but not necessarily all) of this information with your children. Help them to understand how things are changing. Sharing any changes in medication and treatments will keep them involved and informed.
At the same time, you want to protect them as children. Let them play, do sports, and goof off. They can still have a childhood. Don’t overburden them with too much or too detailed information. Bear those worries for them.
Once you’ve told the child, be sure to inform others (such as teachers, babysitter/nanny, etc) about the situation. And don’t forget to seek continued support! This can be from trained professionals, local support groups, pastors, family, and friends.
How to Explain Death When Your Child Starts Asking About It
It may be startling to hear your preschooler talk about death, but this is a normal development process. Children do think about death. Talking about it will not cause your child to have morbid thoughts.
Being a funeral director, I have often talked about death with my kids. They have always had a good understanding of death and have never been scared by our conversations. In my experience, it helps to alleviate worries.
Death is a part of living and can’t be avoided. It’s a good thing when your child asks questions about it; this means that they feel safe with you, and that their mind is growing and maturing. Praise them for their questions, and answer as best as you can.
10 Tips on Talking to Children About Death
Here are ten thoughts that may help as you look at ways to talk to these beloved children about grief, death, and dying.
1. Be proactive in talking to your children about death.
Much like talking with our children about sex, talking to them about death is best to do over the course of their life. Talking at appropriate times as they can understand it.
Talk with the child about life cycles and how a flower may grow and drink water from the ground and absorb the sun’s rays; that flower will at some point die and will cease to do those things.
Though that flower is dead, it did produce seeds and offspring and will provide joy to us in its time. And its offspring is left with us to enjoy again in the spring.
Be direct when having this conversation with your children. While flower metaphors can be helpful, make sure to use language your child will understand whether you are talking to a very young child or a teenager.
2. You’re not a failure if you haven’t talked about it yet.
Talking about death is uncomfortable for most people. And let’s face it, who really wants to talk to your children about death or dying? But sometimes, there is no way around it.
Death happens in different ways; accidental, anticipated, or even sudden. Each instance gives you the chance to discuss death. Prepare yourself with what you want to tell them. Make your discussion fit the circumstances surrounding the death.
You might be surprised at how much your child already understands.
3. Be truthful about death.
Honesty is the best policy. Avoid saying things like, “She’s in a better place” or “He fell asleep.” These will confuse your child. Be direct. “Grandma won’t be coming back, she died” or “Grandpa died, he is not sleeping.”
Use simple, direct, even blunt wording. It is easier for a child to comprehend if you use a straightforward approach.
4. The child’s reaction may not make sense to you, or seem appropriate.
Some children may take a shockingly nonchalant stance when dealing with death, while others will be more expressive.
Be careful not to prejudge a child for seeming callous, nor chastise them for being overly emotional. Every child will process things differently and at their own pace.
5. Listen sympathetically and avoid hasty corrections.
Death is hard for adults to grasp; for children, it’s even more difficult. Children grieve in their own way.
Children might say things that adults deem inappropriate. Listen to what they say without judgment. Be gentle with your children and validate their feelings. Answer questions and offer comfort.
6. Every child is different.
As a parent, you can gauge what your child already knows by asking a few pointed questions. Once you have determined their awareness, you can ready yourself for your discussion.
Some professionals say it is right to tell a child everything. Other professionals say that you should only tell your child as much as they ask about. All experts agree that every child and family is different.
7. Give lots of reassurance.
Try not to say things like “Don’t worry” or “Don’t be sad.” Your child will worry about things and will be sad over the death of their loved one. Let them know you are there to take care of things.
Let them know that they are loved, and there are people to care for them. Tell them you will still tuck them in at night and wake them up in the morning. You will still take them to school and pick them up. Reassure them that life will go on.
8. Encourage open communication.
Children are always full of questions. Be prepared for the same questions over and over. It can get annoying but don’t lose patience with them. This is a way that children cope. Asking questions is a way for them to process their emotions.
9. Let your child remember their loved one.
Your child had a relationship with their loved one, and they need to be able to discuss that. Let them relate their story to you.
Listening to what your child has to say will help you understand what they “know” and where they are in the grief process. This will also help you be able to relay the facts to them. Let your child know the feelings they are having are “okay.”
10. Understand your own grief, and be open and honest about it with your children.
Be aware of your own grief. Children are a sponge and will absorb your words and expressions. If you are sad, be honest about it. Don’t be afraid to express your sorrow for losing a loved one. This will model healthy grieving for them.
At the same time, be careful that you don’t over-burden the child with your own grief. When you feel like you can’t handle it all, take a “nap” behind closed doors. Cry your eyes out, or ask a friend or family member to babysit for a while.
People have lots of questions about this subject. Kids, of course, have even more. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about and from children regarding death and loss.
At what age should you talk to your child about death?
You can talk to children about death as young as 3 years old. Each child and age group will vary in what they can understand and comprehend.
You can take opportunities to talk about dead leaves or dying grass. Talking about death when you aren’t emotional is a good way to introduce the subject.
Use your best judgment in relaying information to your child. Be prepared for their questions.
Should a child visit a dying grandparent?
It is best to follow the dying person’s lead before bringing anyone for a visit.
Visits will give your child and the grandparent a chance to say good-bye. Visiting can help prepare your child for the inevitable outcome. It is a good way to allow for closure.
Should you let a child see a dead parent?
Allowing your child to see a dead parent helps them understand the reality of death. A child doesn’t need to see the actual act of dying. But they do need to understand the finality of their parent’s death.
Your child should be allowed to see and touch their parent. Allow them to place a picture, drawing, or something of importance with their deceased parent.
Should a child attend a funeral?
Funeral attendance should depend upon the relationship your child had with the deceased. If the funeral is for a parent, grandparent, sibling, close relative, or friend, then ask your child if they would like to attend.
If your child wants to attend the funeral, then allow it. Once there, if they need a break or want to leave, honor that desire.
My child talks about death a lot. Is that normal?
Yes. Children tend to talk through things and become intensely focused on things as they learn about and grow to understand them. Death is no different.
Dr. Lauren Knickerbocker, Ph.D. and child psychologist at NYU says, “What adults sometimes don’t realize, because we’re inured to it, is that our kids are surrounded by death all the time: Cartoon characters die, the leaves on the trees die, an ant they smushed at the playground is dead.”
Becoming aware of this is a normal stage of development in children.
Remember, You’re Not Alone
Remember that you are not alone in your struggle with how to talk to children about death. Other parents and caregivers have been through this too.
If you know someone in your church or community who has experienced a loss that has affected their children, don’t be afraid to reach out to them for advice and support. That’s what friends and community are for.