Parents find it hard to explain death to a child because, in most cases, they are not comfortable talking about it themselves. Death and grief can be so overwhelming but avoiding it can leave children angry and confused. Death occurs in many ways. Sometimes it is sudden. Sometimes it is expected. Sometimes it is prolonged or accidental. It can come when we are young or when we are old. Parents cannot shield children from loss, so they need to help them understand it.
Start by telling the truth
Do not skirt the issue. To explain death to a child, you need to be gentle but honest. If someone close to them has died, tell them as soon as possible. Avoid euphemisms like “crossed over” and “went to sleep.” Shielding children from reality will not make them feel better. Young children cannot grasp the concept of death, but they do feel the pain of separation. Indirect terms leave them anxious and upset, uncertain why the family member has gone but cannot come back. Realistic words, on the other hand, provide a clear explanation that allows them to come to terms with what has happened.
Do not be afraid to express your emotions
Telling children what we are feeling makes them aware of their emotions. It lets them know what they are feeling is acceptable and encourages them to open up.
Be sensitive to their age
When you explain death to a child, use a measured flow of information. For children under five, “forever” is still a strange concept. In many cases, you will need to explain that death is not temporary or reversible; it is permanent. The person is not going to get better. Their body has stopped working.
Children at this age ask a lot of questions, so simplicity and repetition are key to their understanding. They will want to know why it happened. Occasionally, they worry they did something to cause it. Some of their questions may be hard to answer, especially if the person did not die of natural causes. During times of pain, stress, and sadness, it is helpful to give them all the information you have clearly and simply as possible. However, do not be afraid to admit when you do not know. Explain that sometimes, it is impossible to have all the answers.
Young children perceive events in relation to themselves, so they may ask about their own death. Do not shy away from the topic. Death is part of life. Acknowledge that death is scary, but far off. Focus on the positive aspects of life instead and everything they have to look forward to. Conversely, they may be worried that you might die. Reassure them you are fine, but that if something did happen, there would be someone to care for them.
It is not until around age 10 that kids start to relate to death the way adults do. You will need to be patient, talk openly, validate their feelings, and check in regularly. Be prepared for some blowups as well. Teenagers process grief the same way as adults, but their emotions are far more volatile.
Discuss the funeral
However you explain death to a child, it is important to touch on grief and mourning. Despite what you may think, funerals are appropriate for children of any age, even toddlers. They may not understand everything that is going on, but they will understand that it is a sad and solemn event.
Talk to children ahead of time. Knowing what to expect and how to behave will minimize disruptions. Make it clear that funerals are a way to say goodbye and find meaning. Tell them about the casket, but do not force them to view the body if they do not want to. Use questions about burial and cremation as an opportunity to delve into your religious and cultural traditions. Continuity brings closure.
With that in mind, many families prefer to attend funerals without their children. Toddlers tend to be disruptive and ask inappropriate questions. Looking after them also distracts from the ceremony. Given these points, parents often find it better to hire a babysitter than bring their kid to a funeral.
However, this dynamic shifts by the time children reach 8-10. They need stronger outlets for their grief, which is why it is a good idea for them to participate in the service. They could speak, choose a song, or greet people at the door, for example. Being part of the ceremony gives them a greater sense of control over their pain.
Remember the deceased
After the funeral, it is a good idea to talk to your kids about what life will be like now that their family member has died. Undoubtedly, some of your traditions will have to change, which can be stressful; children thrive on routine. Walk them through the next calendar year – birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc. Tell them what you will be doing differently and ask for feedback. Once they have been made part of the process, they will be prepared to navigate feelings of loss.
Many families think back on the deceased during holidays. But it is important to talk about them the rest of the year as well. Regularly sharing stories not only keeps their memory alive but shifts the conversation from feelings of loss to the legacy your loved one left behind.
No right reactions
Children process grief in multiple ways. They may become sad, angry, depressed, guilty, anxious, sullen, or withdrawn. Some children, especially young children, do not even react at all. Parents may be unnerved by this, but all it indicates is the child did not have a particularly strong bond with the deceased. Other children experience mood swings. One minute they are crying, the next they are happy. Though it seems alarming, it is merely a defense mechanism that prevents them from feeling overwhelmed.
Regardless of how your child reacts, it is crucial they know they are not alone. Do not push them to talk before they are ready but let them know they can come to you when they are. If they are having trouble expressing themselves, an activity might help. For instance, you can look at old photos or make a scrapbook about the deceased.
Final tips: how to explain death to a child
As has been noted, children respond well to routine; returning to it helps them move on as quickly as possible. And though it is helpful to talk about grief, dwelling on it is not. If you sense they are becoming depressed, change the subject or indulge one of their favorite hobbies. If you notice any regressive behaviors, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking, see a counselor. They will help you address the deep-seated issues your child is grappling with.
Jason Graham has been a hospice chaplain with Parentis Health since 2016. He has served churches throughout Orange County as a teaching pastor, outreach pastor, and senior pastor. He counsels hospice patients and their families, offering spiritual comfort and guidance. During the end-of-life process, he works closely with patients, encouraging them to explore their spiritual and emotional needs, as well as providing comfort to their families.
Lewis Jackson writes about technology and healthcare. His work provides practical insight into modern medicine and healthy living.