By Raising Children Network
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Father comforting daughter on bed

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Many young children under eight years don’t understand that death can’t be changed, that everyone dies one day and that the person is gone. But your young child is still likely to be upset when someone close dies.
 
Talking about death and dying with your child can be difficult, especially if you’re grieving yourself. But talking about these things together, as openly and honestly as you can, will help your child understand what’s happening.

How to talk about death with children

If you find it hard to talk about death and dying with other adults, explaining it to your child can be even more challenging. Here are some tips to help you.

When to talk
Once you know a loved one has died, take the time to explain this to your child as soon as you can. If your child finds out by accident, or from someone he isn’t close to, he might be confused and angry.

If you have more than one child in your family, you might talk with the children together or tell each child what has happened individually. It can help to think about the age, stage and the temperaments of your children when deciding how to tell them about the death.

Your child will probably have questions about the death, so try to be ready when she asks. This way, you’re giving her the information when she’s ready to hear it.

What to say
Your child needs your help to understand death. So it’s best to explain what has happened as simply and truthfully as you can. For example, ‘I have some sad news. Your Aunty Sal died this morning’.

Using the word ‘death’ can avoid problems too. If you say that someone ‘passed away’ or has ‘gone to sleep’, your child might be confused or frightened. For example, a child who is told that ‘Grandpa has gone to sleep forever’ might get scared of sleeping because he’s afraid he’ll never wake up.

If you feel very uncomfortable talking about death, you might need to practise with another adult first. You could go through what you’ll say and how you’ll answer your child’s questions. Or you might like to write down a few notes as reminders.

It can also be helpful to think about what you’ll say if you don’t know the answer to your child’s question. It’s OK to say something like, ‘I don’t know but I’ll try to find out’.

How to handle your own feelings
It’s OK for your child to see that you’re sad, or to see you cry, when someone important to you dies. But it’s also a good idea to explain your feelings to your child. For example, ‘I’m crying because Grandpa died and I feel very sad that I will never see him again’.

You might like to try talking to a trusted friend or family member about your feelings.

If your feelings are making it hard for you to do everyday things, you might need to get some support. Talking with your GP, your partner, a trusted friend or a grief counsellor might also help you to work through your feelings.

Just like adults, children’s feelings when someone dies can range from sadness to anxiety and everything in between. But because kids don’t always have the words to express their feelings, they need your help to understand their feelings and cope with them.

Questions your child might ask

Why did they die? 
Your child is trying to make sense of death. She might want to know what caused the death, so try to answer the question at her level. For example, ‘Grandpa’s heart was very old and wasn’t working the way that it should. The doctors tried to fix it, but it had a very bad sickness that they couldn’t fix’.

Will you die? Will I die?
Your child might start to realise that the people they love could die. It’s a good idea to let him know that most people die only when they’re really old and very sick.

If the death involved a young person, let your child know that this doesn’t happen very often. You could also point out how many other people he knows of the same age who are alive and well.

What happens when you die? 
How you answer this question depends on your family’s personal or spiritual beliefs. If you have spiritual values or beliefs, you could talk with your children about them.

Many people find comfort in giving their children something to focus on when thinking about the person who has died. For example, ‘When we see a star in the sky, we can think about Nanna’.

Whatever you tell your child, it’s helpful if it comforts you too. This way your child can see that you find it reassuring yourself.

Unexpected questions
Your child might ask questions that seem a bit strange, such as ‘Does Grandpa feel cold when he’s dead?’ or ‘Can Grandma see me now?’ Try to answer these questions because they help your child to understand what death is.

If the death happened during a traumatic event – for example, a natural disaster or a car accident – you might like to read our articles on first responses to trauma, supporting your child after trauma and looking after yourself after trauma.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 17-12-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Emma Little, developmental and educational psychologist.