Adults are familiar with the term “death” when a loss takes place close to the family, and they know what is to come. This concept is harder for a child to understand, and it is a conversation that can be difficult to navigate for a parent or guardian. So how do you talk to kids about death?
There is not a “correct” way in terms of what to say, but there are a few principles to help guide the conversation.
It is important to talk to your child as soon as possible following a death. You may want to then give them time to process the information or allow them to ask questions before providing other details. Children also have a shorter feeling span than adults, so meet the child where they are developmentally and follow their lead. For example, if you notice they are distracted or turning away from you, it is probably time to pause the conversation and let them return to their routine.
Be as honest as possible. Your child may feel emotions as you feel them and may have questions relating to the death or the funeral arrangements. How you help their understanding of the situation may help them with their emotions not only now, but in the future.
Keep explanations clear and avoid euphemisms, such as “asleep” or “passed away.” Consider using more of a scientific approach, such as ‘their body has stopped working.’ See additional suggested language below.
Religious Views and Beliefs
If appropriate, you can incorporate your family beliefs with the explanation. Since these may be unfamiliar to your child as well, be sure to explain their background and importance.
Develop the Understanding of Death
In addition to being honest, using simple facts about death may help a child understand its role in life. Usually by 7 years of age children can understand the four cognitive components of developing an understanding of death. This also demonstrates an important cognitive developmental milestone for children in the growth and development. Here are those four components:
- Death is irreversible (allows grieving to begin)
- All life functions stop at end of death (decreases worry about pain experienced by loved one)
- All living things eventually die (depersonalizes experience-connects death to life cycles of all living things on Earth)
- Physical reasons for death (decreases presence of magical thinking and feelings of responsibility, guilt, internalization, and shame)
You may want to start by asking the child their permission to talk about something difficult before beginning conversation about death, so you do not force or pressure a child to do something they’re uncomfortable doing.
They might ask for little-to-no details or ask very graphic questions. Answer the question as simply as possible, and if necessary, you can say you don’t know or must think about the answer and will let them know later. Younger children may be repetitive with their questions, keep the answer consistent and practice patience as they navigate this new concept.
Each person will grieve in his or her own unique way. Depending on age, the child may have a hard time putting into words how they are feeling. Keep the lines of communication open and use common feeling words such as ‘sad’, ‘angry,’ or ‘hurt.’ Reassure the child that whatever they are feeling is completely normal and okay.
Suggested Language, from Clinical Grief Activities
- You can begin the conversation by saying, “Something really hard happened today…”
- Sudden death: “Dad’s heart stopped beating today, and he died.” Accident: “Mary was in a car accident. Her body was very badly hurt, couldn’t be fixed, and she died.”
- Old age: “Grandma had gotten very, very old, her body stopped working and she died.”
- Terminal illness: “Because the disease couldn’t be stopped, your dad got very, very sick and his body stopped working. Dad died.”
- Stillbirth: “Sometimes something causes a baby’s body to stop working before it is born. We don’t know why, but it is nothing anyone did or didn’t do.”
- Homicide: “Your mother was killed today. Sometimes people do very bad things that hurt or kill…”
Language for Difficult Questions
- When will she come back? (She can’t. She didn’t leave; her body stopped working.)
- Why doesn’t she move? (She can’t move because her body has stopped working.)
- Why can’t they fix him? (Once the body has stopped working, it can’t start again.)
- Is he sleeping? (No. When we sleep our body, heart, and lungs are still working, and we are just resting.)
Lastly, remember the way you approach talking to kids about death is just as important as what is said. Having a calm presence, focusing on connecting and really listening and attuning with a child is healing in and of itself. If you are looking for counseling resources or sessions for your child after a death, contact the Grief Counseling Center by calling 502-456-5451, or online here.