Death is an inevitable part of life – a natural experience that everyone faces at some point. But death and the dying process are also topics that we heavily avoid as a society, particularly when it comes to communicating with our young people and children..

While we as adults might have a lifetime’s worth of experience in handling grief, disappointment, and unexpected tragedies, children are usually inexperienced when it comes to handling these difficult situations – especially the reality of a loved one’s death and the concept of death as a whole.

Death is often traumatic and unexpected which can be incredibly hard to deal with, and without guidance from an understanding adult, it can be a confusing, overwhelming, and even scary concept for a child. This is why it falls to us as parents, educators, guardians and caregivers to understand how to best explain the occurrence, in order to prepare young people for the shock and heartache of grief, and guide them through it.

So why is explaining death to children so difficult?

Most people feel some level of anxiety when thinking about having to one day explain the concept of death to a child. Often, we’re afraid that we might not have all of the answers, frighten them or say the wrong thing. This is normal.

Children feel and show their grief in different ways, and how they cope with the loss can depend on a variety of factors like their age, how close they were to the person who died, and the resulting support they receive from those around them.

Only you will know when the time is right and the best way to tell your child that someone they love is dying, or to take steps to prepare them to deal with it, but here are some approaches you can use to start the conversation.

1. Starting early

Giving children the tools to process death before it affects their lives is key to helping ease their anxieties when they are exposed to the occurrence. Starting discussions about death at an early age will also make them more comfortable to ask questions and talk about their feelings, and it is our responsibility to ensure our kids are aware of it and know it’s okay to discuss it.      

Starting an open and mature conversation with young people can give them the tools to deal with these difficulties throughout their entire lives.

2. Understand what your child will be able to comprehend

There is never really a “right time” to tell a child about the inevitability of death, but taking into consideration what they will understand will help you choose the right approach. How children will understand death depends on their stage of development, and each child is different in their reaction.

Try to explain in clear, simple language that’s right for their age and level of experience. You might also try giving them information in small amounts at a time to help them understand; especially to young children. Make sure you go at the child’s pace.

3. Be honest

When a loved one is dying, we often avoid telling our kids the truth because we want to prevent their suffering, but it’s important to be open and to answer any questions they have as honestly as you can. Kids can sense when they are not being told the whole truth, and may become anxious and make up inaccurate explanations about simple facts. What children imagine can be far worse than reality.

Using euphemisms to describe death – while well-intentioned – often confuses children. Honest, short answers in your explanation and responses to questions can help simplify matters for the child and ensure they gain an understanding of the concept and permanence of death.

4. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”

When discussing serious illness and death with kids, they may have questions that you don’t have the answers to, and that’s okay! Discuss with them that some things in life cannot be explained – or offer to ask someone who might know the answer, like a doctor or family member

5. Give them time to heal

Grief is a process that happens over time, so give your child time to heal from the loss. Some kids may temporarily have trouble concentrating or sleeping, or have fears or worries. Be sure to have ongoing conversations to see how your child is feeling and doing, and let your child know that it takes time to feel better after a loved one dies.

6. Understanding their reactions

Sometimes children may even feel that a person has died as a result of something they may have said or done. It is especially important to listen to a child who feels this, and reassure them that nothing that anyone said or did caused this to happen.

7. Don’t hide your emotions

It can be tough for family members, friends and caregivers to help a child understand and grieve when you are struggling with your own feelings, but be kind to yourself if you do feel this way. By allowing yourself to express your own emotions in the presence of a child, you show that it’s perfectly normal to feel sad during such sad times. It can also make it easier for them to be open and honest about their own feelings.

Avoid telling them not to worry or be sad. They might find it hard to control their feelings, and sometimes you may even find that a child doesn’t seem to be sad at all. Sometimes they need time to absorb what’s happened.

8. Don’t be afraid to reminisce

To protect children, we often avoid talking about the person who’s died, but ignore the fact that the child may want to talk about them. Recalling and sharing happy memories can help heal grief and activate positive feelings, so use this as an opportunity to celebrate a life and for family and friends to find peace and acceptance.

9. Tools that can help

  • There are specialist reading lists that include books for and about grieving children. These can be purchased online, or directly through us. Call us for more information.
  • Art helps children to be creative and is a great way of expressing emotions
  • Writing letters, stories and poems are also a helpful way of expressing feelings
  • Routine helps encourage kids to keep up with schoolwork, usual activities and friendships
  • Explain their situation to their school, caregivers or parents of a few close friends who can offer support too
  • Creating a memory box before or after a bereavement is a special way to keep memories alive
  • Support groups and counselling can help kids who need more support
  • If at any time you feel unable to cope, remember you don’t have to go it alone. Friends, family, healthcare professionals, teachers at the child’s school and others can all help.

10. Encourage them to ask questions

It is important that children feel able to ask questions, so encourage them to do so. Listen carefully so that you know exactly what they mean. You can also ask them what they think before you answer which can help clarify what they are actually asking.

If you don’t have the time to answer them right away, validate their question with a response that reassures their question is valid, and ask if it’s ok that you talk about it later. It’s then just as important to make sure that you do follow through with this.

Above all, the best way for you to support your child in understanding and dealing with the bereavement process is to help make sense of what is happening. Talk with them frequently, be open and honest, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s very likely that your child’s teacher will be open to having a conversation so as to ensure that they are aware of how your child is coping. Pastoral helpers may also be contacted through the school to provide both you and your child with the support you need. You are not alone in your supportive role. Now is the time to lean on friends, family members and an anyone who offers help.