Talking to Young Children About Death

As much as we don’t really like to think about it, death is something that touches each of us at some point in our lives.  And often it touches not only our own lives, but the lives of the little ones we love and teach.

I received an email over the weekend from a supervisor at a children’s center that broke my heart.  Two little children at her center, twin girls, had recently lost their father.  Obviously, these girls and their family were grieving, but the tragedy also touched the larger community and left many of the parents and teachers wondering how to explain such an emotional and somewhat abstract concept to young children.  I replied to the email right away, and soon after realized that what I had written would not only benefit the children and families of that center, but might also be useful to others who may be struggling with the same dilemma.

Talking about death isn’t always sparked by a traumatic experience.  Some children may simply ask about it after hearing a story, or seeing an animal on the side of the road.  Children in a situation like the one I mentioned above, who are aware of the tragedy, but perhaps not really directly impacted by it are still going to try to make sense of it all.  Whatever the event, children will likely have some natural curiosities (What does it mean to die?  Can people come back to life?  What makes a person die?), some emotional insecurities (Will my dad die too?  Will I die?  Did I do something to make these grown-ups sad?), and a need for expression.  
Children need their questions to be answered directly and honestly.  Avoid abstract or symbolic terms.  Using terms like “went to sleep” or “went away on a trip” can cause children to be afraid of these things.  Likewise, if we oversimplify how the person died, they may be afraid that they may cause someone’s death or die themselves from simple things like being mean, getting sick, or having a hurt.  Sometimes the most direct explanation is that the person’s body stopped working and that it was something doctors couldn’t fix.  Talking in families is particularly important because it allows for personal and religious beliefs to be included in these discussions. 
When my husband’s sister died of cancer and our boys were very small, I explained to my oldest son (who was about three) that her body wouldn’t work anymore and that her spirit, the part that made her eyes look happy, and her face smile, and the part that loved him and that he loved was with God, but that her body that he could see was in a special kind of box called a casket that was put in the ground at the cemetery because her spirit didn’t need it.  That’s an explanation that’s in keeping with my family’s own beliefs.  (It’s important not to compare the casket to a bed because that again can cause fears of sleeping or beds.  If children show concern, it may also be important to clarify that the body in the ground can’t feel or hurt or get hungry or cold.)
Beyond the general curiosity, children want to be reassured that their loved ones or they themselves won’t die too.  This isn’t really possible to do, but when they ask, I explain to my boys that we do a lot of things to help make sure we can live as long as we can.  I know I can’t promise that death won’t happen, but they find security when I point out what we do to prevent that from happening the best we can.  Kids struggling with loss may need more time and attention from their parents or more consistency in their routines to help them feel secure.
Children may also feel worried about the adults they love who seem so sad.  It’s OK for them to see you sad and for you to talk about how you’re feeling and why.  It gives them permission to do the same.  Along with that, it’s good for them to see how you deal with those feelings in healthy ways.  Children may act silly or sweet to try to cheer up the people around them.  Others may act out as a way to work through their feelings or to check in and make sure that you’ll still attend to them.
When kids are given something new to process, they often need an outlet for that expression to help them organize their understanding and work through their experiences and feelings.  For some that means talking about death in general, drawing pictures, telling stories about death, or acting it out in their play scenarios.  This shouldn’t be discouraged, it’s how they make sense of the experience and one way they can control something that they can’t control in real life. 

As an example, when 9/11 occurred, I was teaching in a preschool where some of the children went through a period of building block structures and knocking them over with a block representing an airplane.  Observe children in these activities and watch to see what the salient aspects of the experience are for them.
Some children simply continue on as though nothing has changed.  They may not be as aware of what’s going on, they may have already come to grips with things, or they may simply find more comfort in keeping their regular routine as a way to combat the change around them. 

Know too, that some may seem uninterested and then bring up the experience months or even years later.  Address it as it comes.  Neither discourage or force a child to go through any of these processes.  Simply let them know through your responses that their questions will be answered honestly and their feelings will be validated and respected and they’ll continue to come to you when they need it.

How do you talk to young children about death?

Top photo by Peter Björknäs.
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18 responses to “Talking to Young Children About Death

  1. This is really useful. My grandmother has basically been given 3 months to live, and while we have talked about her illness with our children, they have never had someone close to them die. I have been preparing myself for the questions and explanations that will undoubtedly arise – and this post will be very helpful. Thanks.

  2. Sharon O

    This is such a sensitive topic. When our ‘grandma’ died last year the grand kids were all confused. They knew she was sick (pancreatic cancer) they knew she might not make it. But it was explained that grandma Loved the Lord and it was her time to go be with him. Our grandchildred were 11, three 6 year olds and a 2 year old. After the service one of our daughters twins who was 6 came running over to grandpa (my husband who lost his mom) and she was just bawling. Grandma is gone. I think the slide show which was larger than life on the big screen HIT home that grandma was indeed not here. It was difficult with lots of tears. I do think one doesn’t want to say ‘they got sick’ or they ‘went to sleep’. It is a very cautious walk with children. Thank you for the challenge to do more thinking about it.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks for sharing your story, Sharon. It’s an emotional and hard event for children and adults alike. Even when you handle everything the “right way” those tears still come. Good luck to you and your family.

  3. sara

    I just came across your blog and have found your blog to be GOLD! I am very passionate about learning to be a good mom and wife and this blog will help me fulfill one of those areas quite well. Thanks for taking time to update this blog with help, understanding, and encouragement. I look forward to applying what I learn here.

  4. Excellent article! We have been dealing with this in the classroom because our assistant’s husband recently died very unexpectedly.

  5. Hi Amanda, another lucid and sensible post – I’ll email my “borrowing” of it to share with readers of the local paper here.
    Thanks so much

  6. Hi Amanda – I don’t seem to have your personal email address anymore – could you send it to me again please?

  7. Thanks so much for posting this, my dad died three weeks ago and I have three children (1.5, 4, and 5). My dad fought stage 4 cancer for three years, so his death wasn’t exactly a surprise but it’s been interesting (and sometimes hard) to gauge the kids’ reactions. It’s important to me that my kids remember their grandpa (to the extent possible) so we’ve talked a lot about all the fun stuff we did with him and how much we’ll miss him and how everyone needs to die one day (but hopefully not until you’re old). But then all these other people kept saying things like “we’ll pray for you” and “he’s in a better place” or “he’s in heaven now” and it’s been really tough. I’m not religious and it’s been really hard to explain heaven to my kids when i don’t believe in heaven, especially while dealing with the loss of a parent. I’ve tried to explain that some people believe in heaven and some people don’t and as they get older that will be a decision they will make for themselves, which works okay with my 5 year old but it’s a pretty confusing message for a 4 year old. Anyways, I just wanted to say that I tried hard to prepare for talking to my kids about death but it’s really hard when EVERYONE ELSE is also talking to your kids about death. Especially when questions get as complex as “why is everyone praying for us? will grandpa come back alive like Jesus if they pray enough?” “If he comes back alive will he still be sick?”

    • notjustcute

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Darcy. It’s still hard, even when it’s somewhat expected. I think, from your position, you can explain to your children that when people say they’ll pray for them, it’s because they love them and believe that praying for them will give them strength and make them feel better. I think I understand your intentions with allowing your children to choose their religion when they get older, but that explanation can create some difficulties for them. While you want to be respectful of their own choices as adults, you have to also recognize their need to explore those topics now. If you aren’t comfortable presenting one viewpoint to them, just encourage them to explore their own experiences and feelings. When they ask hard religious questions, putting them off to decide later may be difficult, but you could say “I don’t know” or “Some people believe abc, and I feel xyz” and then ask them “what do you think?” or “how do you feel when you think about….” This encourages them to engage in healthy introspection and opens a dialogue rather than postponing it. Best of luck with a very difficult situation.

  8. tracey

    Thank you for the insightful information on helping children with questions, concerns about death. We need to be mindful that young children process information so differently from older children. When my sister died, my three year old son wanted to know what happened to her body. I biefly explained about the casket. My “concrete thinker” three year old said” God put a stamp on her box and mailed her to heaven”. You never know how children make sense of the world!

  9. Great advice. I have already talked with my children about death, mainly in the context of safety to let them know consequences.

    We did see a dog run out on the highway and it got hit by the car just in front of us. The kids (2 and 4 at the time) witnessed it and I explained to them that the dog was dead. It could think, and feel, and move, and do things a minute ago, but now it can’t. It now feels and thinks nothing, not even sadness, nor does it remember anything that ever happened to it. It was alive, but now it’s dead forever. Then I used the incident to teach the kids that they should be careful around cars.

    I have a great bit of video that I should post on my site later about my child and I discussing the death of a lobster. We saw a crayfish in fish store that had dies and was being eaten by his other crayfish friends. My boy wanted me to explain that to him.

    Tears will come when loved ones tie, but that is as it should be. No explanation should take that away. I remember when I first realized my own mortality as a young boy. I used to cry about it sometimes.

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