Talking to Kids About Death and Dying

Deciding how to talk to children and teenagers about death can be difficult, especially when experiencing the loss of a loved one. Helping your kids understand and cope with loss while managing your own grief can be challenging, but it may be one of the most important conversations you ever have with them. Here are some tips that can help you navigate your approach to the process as you all start on a path toward healing.

Consider The Circumstances Around The Death

The situation surrounding each death is different and your conversation needs to take this into account. Whether a death was sudden or expected, each loss is unique and you should use your specific circumstances when deciding how to approach the topic of death with your child.

Consider Your Child’s Age When Framing the Conversation

A child’s age is an important factor in your discussion, but you may be surprised to learn how much they already know about death and dying. Children will frequently bring the topic up before parents have had a chance to think about the conversation. There are three different developmental stages of understanding, although it is important to remember that children mature and grow at different speeds and you may need to adjust your approach based on your own child’s life experience and personality.

  • Preschool Aged Children (Ages 3 to 5 Years Old) Very young kids may not understand that death is permanent and may think it is something that can be reversed. They will likely feel the loss through a disruption in their regular routine, through the absence of a loved one, or by witnessing the grief and stress the death is causing other family members to experience. Keeping a regular schedule, spending extra time with them, and showing them extra love and affection can be helpful for this age group.
  • Younger Children (Between the Ages of 5 and 9 Years Old) Children at this stage start having a better understanding about death being permanent and that all living things eventually die. They may still struggle to understand the reality of death or think they themselves can escape it. It is important to reassure kids this age that death is not a punishment or something a person did wrong, and avoid using euphemisms when speaking about death.
  • Older Children and Teenagers (Above 9 Years Old) At this stage, older children and teenagers have a stronger understanding that death is unavoidable and something they will face eventually. Older kids will likely have specific questions and want as much information as possible. Teenagers typically experience grief in a similar manner to adults, and may feel anger and sadness as they work through their process. With both groups, it is important to maintain routines and give them chances for expressing feelings and emotions.

Helpful Tips When Talking To A Child About Death

  • Use clear language and avoid using phrases such as “they are in a better place” or “they’ve passed away.” Children may not understand the deeper meaning of these euphemisms and they can cause additional confusion. Do not be afraid of using the terms “death” and “dying” and fully explaining what death means, if necessary.
  • Try to help children remember good times with the person who has passed instead of getting stuck talking about where they are now. If your family holds certain religious beliefs about what happens after death, you may share those if they will comfort your child.
  • Encourage your kids to ask questions without consequence, and be honest with them if you don’t know the answer. Open and authentic communication about what happened can help some children feel more at ease after experiencing a loss.
  • Allow time for children (and yourself) to process grief and move toward healing. Everyone grieves at their own pace and you should try to be patient as you work through the process. Older children and teenagers may take longer to come to terms with a death than younger kids.
  • Let them see your own grief and help them understand that it is normal to have these feelings when experiencing a loss. It is okay to be sad or cry, and you may find peace in sharing memories of your loved one with your children.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek additional help if you think your children are struggling with the loss or experiencing grief to a level that interferes with their ability to participate in normal activities or routines. A grief support group or therapist can be a wonderful resource if you need additional assistance.