Updated: May 30
Children can have lots of questions about death when someone dies. As a parent, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start.
How to talk to children about death
When death is more sudden or tragic, we are often very affected and as such, it can be more difficult to have conversations with our children. We have to process our own feelings of grief and distress before we can have that chat.
It is still important that we have this conversation as soon as possible so we are the ones that break the news to our children and can nurture their emotions.
Be calm and set the emotional tone.
Carefully watch for your child’s reaction and follow their lead.
Answer their questions as honestly as you can. Reassure them that they are safe and cared for.
Don’t overwhelm them with too much information at the beginning but be there to answer questions in the coming days.
Try to spend as much time with them as you can
Keep up routines and do things as a whole family.
When to talk to your children about death
Should parents talk to their children about death anyway, or wait until the time has come because of the death (or impending death) of a relative or friend?
It is important that children have an understanding that living things die. Sometimes this discussion with very young children can focus on plants or small creatures. However, the death of pets whether they are ours or others can be a helpful way to introduce this topic. Talking about how we felt when a pet or someone we loved died will allow children to understand the grief process better.
Is there a suitable age for this conversation to take place?
It is important that children of all ages are told when someone they know has died. Children under the age of 5 will struggle to understand that death is irreversible and universal. How a child responds will depend on their age and stage of development but there is also much variability in how many of us grieve. The age of the child will impact the amount of appropriate information that needs to be shared. Keep explanations brief but honest. Young children tend to ask more direct questions and often ask the same questions over and over again because they are trying to process this event.
What should parents keep in mind when chatting about death?
Sometimes we want to avoid discussing death with children because we are worried or fearful about how they will cope. We can be concerned that we are going to say the wrong thing and make the situation worse. In fact, talking to children about death will allow them to feel more secure and supported. Let them grieve in their own way. It’s important we validate their feelings, whatever they are. Children can ask some heartbreaking questions about death so we need to think about how we can respond. It’s important to stay calm and provide responses that are at their level. It is okay if they see you cry and be upset. It is important to ease a child’s fear of illness and death. Reassure them that you will be there for them and remind them that many illnesses do not result in death.
Have a plan of what you want to say or share. It can be helpful to run it by a friend.
Tell children the truth and do so as soon as you can.
Use words like died or dead, not “went to sleep” or “passed away” or “we lost….”, as this language creates confusion and does not help the grieving process.
Provide information in small doses
Remember it’s okay to say, “I don’t know”.
Try to be honest and open and use language they understand.
Give them time to process the information.
Religious families may have their own rituals and beliefs about death. It is important that we ask or make suggestions about how they want to remember and celebrate their loved ones. Children should not be made to do anything they are not comfortable with, even if we believe it would help them. Some children like to do creative things like drawing a picture or card as part of the goodbye. Others may like to make a memory book or slide show of shared experiences. Children may want to keep something of their loved ones as a reminder. Experiences like letting balloons go or having a special candle we always light can be comforting. As a family, it can be helpful to have a ritual or new routine that helps remember their loved one like cooking their favourite meal or buying that special cake that their grandma loved as a Friday night treat. It might be planting a special tree or flower that grandpa loved.
Is the advice different depending on who has died?
How we explain the death of someone is the same, but the process of grieving can be significant depending on the nature of the relationship and the degree of loss that the child will experience. Children can grieve quite differently than adults, and at times their response will not be what we expected. Even if the person who died was not well known to the child, they can be emotional about our feelings or what it triggers for them regarding the inevitability of death.
What should parents look out for in terms of behaviours and emotions in their kids AFTER they've had the death chat?
Young children in particular, need reassurance that their life will go on no matter what happens. They will still have their friends around to play with, go to school and be able to do everyday things. There will be questions that will pop up out of nowhere that we will need to answer. This is because children can take longer to process the complexity and experience of loss.
Some children will not display any adverse reactions, but others may exhibit increases in irritability, anxiety, clinginess or anger outbursts. There can be changes in appetite, losing themselves in screens or retreating to their rooms. We do need to provide comfort and flexibility in supporting children during this time; however, children respond and are best supported by routine and consistency. It makes them feel secure and that their world is still the same.
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