10 Tips for Explaining Death to Children

By: Ian Elliott
Friday, October 23, 2015

Many parents struggle to discuss death with their children, and many often try to avoid discussing this difficult subject with their little ones. However, death is a fact of life and by being properly prepared to help our children cope, we need to let them know that it’s okay to talk about it.

By discussing death with your children, you help them cope with feelings of confusion and loss, and help them understand how important it is to share time with the people they love.

Below are 10 tips for explaining death to children:

1. It’s okay to not know everything.

Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know the answer to a question.

2. Be honest and encourage them to ask questions.

It’s important for children to know that they can talk about death, and that being sad, angry, scared, or whatever emotions they are experiencing are perfectly okay.

3. Don’t get frustrated with children who ask the same questions again and again.

If a child is persistently asking the same questions, calmly tell the child that the person has died and can’t come back. Don’t discourage questions or tell them that they are “too young” to understand.

4. Try to talk about death before emotions are involved.

Children are exposed to mortality at a very young age: they see plants die, as well as insects, birds, and rodents. Taking the opportunity to talk to them about death during these minor encounters can help them understand and cope when faced with the death of a friend or family member.

5. For children under the age of 5, explain death in basic and concrete terms.

Often, it’s helpful to the child if you explain it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions. For example, saying “when Grandpa died, he stopped breathing, eating, talking, thinking or feeling” can help put things into perspective for small children.

6. When answering questions, be brief and keep explanations simple.

Be cautious not to overwhelm them with too many details or examples, which may be confusing or muddle the message.

7. Avoid euphemisms

Using euphemisms to explain death may detract from the seriousness of the situation. Don’t say that the person “went to sleep” or “went away” as these explanations can cause children to be afraid to go to sleep, or worry that their parents will leave the house and “go away.”

8. Let them know not every illness is fatal.

If a loved one has died due to an illness, stress to children that we all get sick from time to time, and we usually get better again.

9. Don’t lead your child to believe that only old people die.

When they learn that young people can die as well, they may mistrust you for having lied to them. Try saying something like “Grandma lived a long time before she died. Some people don’t get to live a long time, but most people do. You and I will live a long time, I think.”

10. Be ready to discuss death whenever they have a question.

As children grow up, their understanding of death changes, so be prepared to discuss death at various points as they grow up and mature.

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