Explaining Death to Children

Telling a young child that a beloved family member, friend, or pet has died is a difficult task for any parent to face, and many parents have questions about how to approach this conversation.  There are a few important things to keep in mind when discussing death with a child of any age.

Parents may feel like they need to protect young children from their own grief and may hesitate to cry or discuss their feelings in front of them.  Your own reaction to a loved one’s death will teach your child about grief and appropriate ways to grieve, and it will show them that it is okay to cry, feel sad, ask questions, and talk about your loved one.  Your child will have a lot of questions, and being open about your feelings will show them that they can discuss theirs with you in return.

When talking to your child about death, it is important to keep your child’s age and developmental stage in mind so that you can explain it in a way that he or she will best understand.  Toddlers and preschoolers think in very concrete terms, and at this stage it is recommended to focus on the facts.  Be honest, keep your explanation short and use simple language that your individual child (or children) will understand.  If your child is a toddler or preschooler, he or she is probably learning basic facts about the human body and how it works (for example, our legs enable us to walk or our lungs help us to breathe).  At this age, it is recommended to explain that the deceased’s body, or specific body part (such as their heart if the cause of death was a heart attack) “stopped working” whether due to illness or an accident.  You can explain that doctors tried to help them, but were not able to fix what “stopped working” in their body (Lyness & Perkel, 2012).

Children often have difficulty grasping the finality of death, especially if they have seen characters die and come back to life in popular cartoons and video games.  They may continue to ask the same questions about death and the deceased, and it is important for parents to be patient and repeat their explanations in the same brief, concrete terms.  If your child asks you a question and you do not know the answer, it is okay to be honest and admit that you do not know.  If you believe in the afterlife, deciding at what age to introduce this concept is your choice.  Just try to explain it as simply as possible and use language that your child will understand based on his developmental stage.

Adults often shy away from using the word “death” and instead use metaphors, such as “eternal rest,” “passing away” or “taking a long journey.”  Loved ones that die are often described as “lost.”  While these phrases are widely understood by adults, they are too confusing for young children to understand because they are abstract and do not convey the finality of death.  If a three year old is told that her grandmother “passed away,” she will likely wonder where she went and when she is coming back.  These metaphors, especially ones that relate to sleep or “eternal slumber,” can cause anxiety about going to sleep.

Children, like adults, will have many different ways of coping with the death of a loved one and may experience guilt, anger or depression.  They may experience a temporary regression and start sucking their thumb or having toilet training accidents.  Some children may introduce death into their imaginary play by pretending that a favorite toy has died.  These behaviors are normal, but if your child experiences significant behavior changes, discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician.

By: Amy Yelich, M. Ed. Developmental Specialist

References:

Lyness, D. and and Perkel P. (2012). Helping your child deal with death.  Retrieved from: http://www.kidshealth.org.

National Institute of Health Clinical Center. (2006). Talking to children about death. Bethesda, MD: Patient Information Publications.