How to Talk to Your Child About Death (with free printable)

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

How to Talk to Your Child About Death (with free printable)

The unfortunate truth is that if we live, we must also one day die. And death can be confusing, especially for children, who are constantly receiving confusing messages about the subject. Many parents have difficulty talking about death with children, particularly young children, and we frequently avoid the subject for as long as we can… usually until someone close to us or close to our child dies.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

My Own Experience

I remember years ago when an older sibling of a child around my son’s age suddenly and unexpectedly died. My son was six years old at the time, and it was his first experience with death. He of course had watched cartoons in which various characters would die, but they always came back to life, sometimes within minutes and in the same episode. He knew what death was in his young eyes: something that happened but then you get to come back to life and re-join all the loved ones and friends you knew when you were alive. Death was portrayed in his cartoons more as a time of sleep rather than something permanent and forever.
My son had played at his friend’s house plenty of times (nearly daily for at least over a year), and he knew his friend’s older sibling. They had even played together on occasion. My son was close to the whole family, so when his friend’s older sibling suddenly died, he was completely confused and I was dumbfounded as to how to explain his death. The older sibling was still school-age, which made it even more complicated – because “kids don’t die, right?”
For the first few days, grieving myself, I didn’t know what to say to my son, who had what seemed like a billion questions about death. “Why do people die?” “How did he die?” “What’s death like?” “Will he be back?” “Where did he go?” “Will I die?” “Kids don’t die, right?” “How come kids die?” “Does everyone die?” “I thought only bad kids die, don’t they?” He went on and on with the questions, and I tried to be as honest as possible, but I was truthfully at a loss. How do you talk to a six year old about something so hard?

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

What Do We Tell Our Children When Someone Dies?

That’s the question I kept asking myself. Since then, I’ve learned more and more about what to say and what to avoid saying. After taking an excellent online course, in addition to going to some face-to-face trainings, I finally learned how to really talk to kids about death. The online course “Using Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Childhood Traumatic Grief” especially lays it out for us. The course is for clinicians, but it’s an excellent resource for anyone who works with kids or has children of their own. I highly recommend it.
Every course and training I’ve had on childhood grief tells us to begin by talking about the topic directly. This can be done in several different ways, such as by reading books with the child. Reading books about death and grief not only provides the child with information, it also speaks to our children in their own language. It lets the child know that it’s okay to talk about death and ask questions, and it also promotes more open discussion with family members. There are numerous appropriate books to choose from for all ages. Another strategy is to play grief-specific board games. While most of these are marketed toward clinicians to use in therapy with grieving children, parents can also purchase these games at specialty websites. You can google “grief games for children,” and you’ll find plenty of online stores to choose from.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Next, it’s important to focus on the child’s beliefs and own understanding about death. You can ask your child to draw or write what she thinks happens when someone dies; this is one good way to learn more about their personal thoughts and beliefs. This is also a point in which we as parents can correct inaccurate information or misconceptions.
Of course, we all have different beliefs about what happens after we die. It’s okay to incorporate these beliefs into your discussions with your child, just be careful about the way you word some of your information. More on that in a bit.
Finally, address your child’s feelings about the death. This provides your child the opportunity to identify his own grief response. It then gives you the opportunity to normalize your child’s feelings. Depending on your child’s developmental level and feelings vocabulary (e.g., the feelings they are able to identify), we can use tools like feelings faces charts (google this and I promise you’ll find a ton of them), journaling and writing, or simply drawing how they feel.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Consider Their Developmental Age

It’s no big secret that children’s knowledge about death and the way they respond to it vary by age and their developmental level. It’s important to keep this in mind when you’re listening to your child express their thoughts and feelings. Some thoughts that may sound unusual to us (as adults) are actually normal for a child at certain ages; there is generally no reason to be concerned about these kinds of thoughts. It’s a good idea to learn what responses are common at your child’s age.
Also, recognize that there is no grief “timeline.” There is no set order to what people feel; there is no “normal” amount of time to grieve. You might notice your child continuing to experience “pangs” of grief even after a period of time during which their grief has lessened. This is normal.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Make Sure Your Kids Feel a Sense of Safety

Depending on the circumstances of the death, help your child by reassuring them that you will do whatever is possible to keep them safe. Again, depending on the circumstances, children may benefit from learning how to stay safe themselves by developing a safety plan.

Common Terms to Use When Talking to Your Child About Death

Like I said earlier, kids receive a LOT of confusing messages about death. Most people typically don’t even like to use the words “death,” “dying,” or “dead;” instead we use words to disguise death. While these terms (such as “passed away”) are intended to protect our kids from the reality of death, they can contribute to children’s confusion. Younger kid in particular aren’t yet able to understand that when people die, it’s forever, that they can’t come back to life, and that everyone will eventually die someday.
The most important thing you can do for your child during difficult times like grieving is to be honest and direct. Use language that is accurate and of course, appropriate to the child’s age.
You can start by talking to your child about the actual physical process of death. The child needs to hear that the person who died is no longer physically present and that they can’t come back. What you say about the cause of death will vary according to the circumstances of the death, of course, but saying the words “death” or “died” is best. Religious explanations can be incorporated into any discussion that includes these main concepts. Again, books are an excellent way to help you and your child use the correct language.
Some examples of common phrases you might want to consider:
  • “Now that your grandpa died, he can’t breathe or eat anymore. We can’t see him, but we can remember him.”
  • “People die when they are very sick and there isn’t any more medicine to help them.”
  • “Daddy died and he is in heaven.”
It’s important to clarify, however, that people who are alive can’t get to heaven and that those who are dead can’t come back. You may need to balance the explanation based on your family’s beliefs with an understanding that there is a chance of possible misunderstood meanings when you talk to your kids. For example, if you say “Daddy is an angel now, and he’s watching over us from heaven,” you may need to elaborate more, as children may get the feeling that Daddy is still alive, that heaven is a place they can visit, and that he sees everything they do.

What to Avoid Saying to Your Child When Talking About Death

Slang and euphemisms should be avoided, as they can be confusing to young children. Be aware that kids may attach concrete or inaccurate meaning to different words and phrases. For instance, saying, “We lost Grandpa” can be upsetting, as it can imply that Grandpa was misplaced or that he could still be “found.” Telling a child that “Mommy is sleeping now” can also be quite confusing, as it can imply that Mommy can wake up; it could also potentially leave your child with a worry or fear about falling asleep himself.
Some common phrases to avoid:
  • “He went to sleep.”
  • “We lost your sister.”
  • “She went on a trip.”
  • “He croaked.”
  • “She kicked the bucket.”
  • “He went to the big ranch in the sky.”
As you can probably see, these phrases can only further confuse your child about a topic that he is not so sure about in the first place.

Free Printable Summary of This Article

Click on the link below to receive a free printable summary of this article, with suggestions of what to say and what to avoid saying to your grieving child.
Information for this article can be largely contributed to the online course “Using TF-CBT with Childhood Traumatic Grief” found at CTG Web (http://ctg.musc.edu/) and various other trainings offered to counselors and social workers.

About the author

Stacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC administrator

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