Conversations about death are not easy to deal with when you’re an adult. For children, it’s even harder to understand and work through. A child is also likely to cope with their grief in a very different way to an adult. We all know it’s an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make knowing how to explain death to a young child any easier or less painful.
Whatever their age, explaining death to children has to be done, preferably by someone who is closest to them. When someone important in their lives has died, you should talk to a child about death as soon as possible, using clear language they understand.
How to explain death to a child?
Children, more so than adults, deal with grief in different ways. They can quickly swing between grieving and getting on with their everyday lives. Equally, they might not react very much at all.
A child’s understanding of death depends on many things. Personality, previous experience of death, and character all have a bearing, but two of the most significant determinants are their age and development stage. Children are all individuals, and no two children develop at the same rate. Even children from the same family may react differently to death. You have to consider this when you decide how to talk about death to a child.
Talking to children about the death of a grandparent
The death of a grandparent is often a child’s first experience of losing someone close to them. Processing that loss can be scary, painful, and often confusing. There’s no easy or set way to navigate through the grieving process, but it will help if you’ve got some strategies in place for how to explain death to a child of a grandparent.
The process starts with language. Young children tend to be very literal. Therefore, the first step when talking to children about the death of a grandparent is to ensure your conversations are straightforward, honest, and developmentally appropriate. Tell the truth and don’t try to soften death’s finality by using false or misleading language.
Include in the conversation changes the child should expect. For example, if they’re accustomed to doing certain things with grandma or grandpa, you should remind them that the routine will change.
Providing your child with opportunities to participate in remembrance rituals is also essential, as long as you prepare them properly for the event.
How to explain the death of a parent to a child
When a child has to deal with the loss of such an important figure as their parent, the intense feelings they might be feeling can be hard to process. Death is a challenging subject to talk about with anyone, especially a child. Sugarcoating it or avoiding the topic to “protect” the child can do more harm than good.
When talking to children about the death of a parent, avoid using terms such as “they are sleeping” or other euphemisms to explain the death. It can be very confusing for children because they tend to take things very literally. Words such as “died” or “killed” may seem very harsh, but it’s best to stick to plain, simple language.
When talking to children about death and dying, try to be as straightforward as possible about how their parent died, but only to the degree that’s appropriate for their age and developmental stage.
Something fundamental to explain is that they are not responsible for their parent’s death because of something they said, thought, or did. They also need to understand that the parent cannot be brought back to life again.
Let the child know that it’s OK for them to ask questions, which will help ensure that death doesn’t become taboo. The questions they ask may give you an insight into how they’re dealing with things.
Tips on explaining death to children
It will never be easy to tell your child that a loved one has died. However, there are some commonly agreed ways in which to do it sympathetically and clearly.
1. Speak in simple words
It’s best to break the news that someone has died by approaching your child in a caring way. Use words that are simple and direct. It’s much clearer to say someone has died rather than use euphemisms. Try to avoid terms such as a person has ‘gone away’ or ‘gone to sleep.’ Such explanations might make them frightened to go to sleep or make them worry when you leave the house you might not come back.
2. Use a story or a video to explain death
A study published in the Omega Journal of Death and Dying by academics at the University of Buffalo showed that films, stories, and videos could be a useful springboard to start conversations. You can use them to open up chats because they introduce a difficult concept in an accessible way. There’s also the option of using books explaining death to children.
3. Show your emotions
Grieving is an integral part of the healing process for adults and children. You could frighten your child with exaggerated expressions of emotion, but don’t make the subject off-limits either.
Explain that grown-ups need to cry sometimes and that you feel sad because you miss the person too.
4. Accept the child’s reaction and grief
Every child reacts differently when they learn a loved one has died. Some ask endless questions, while others cry. Some might show no apparent reaction at all. It’s OK whatever their reaction is. The important thing is to stay with them, offer hugs and reassurance. Answer any questions and just take comfort in being in each other's company.
5. Answer the child’s questions about death
Be prepared for your child to be curious and ask the same questions over and over again. You might find this distressing, but remember it is part of their need for reassurance and helps them to process what has happened.
6. Tell youngsters what to expect
The death of a loved one might mean some changes in their life. You can head off any worries or fears by explaining what is going to happen. For example, ‘I need to stay with Grandma for a few days. You’ll stay home with Dad and take care of each other. I’ll make sure I talk to you every day, and I’ll be back on Wednesday.’ or you might need to explain that someone else will be picking them up from school, just like Grandma used to.
7. Help them remember the person
Over the next few weeks and months, encourage your child to write down favourite stories or draw pictures of their loved one. Don’t avoid talking about the person who died. Instead, recall and share happy memories as this can help heal grief and promote positive feelings.
8. Allow yourself and the child enough time
Grieving is something that happens over time. How long it lasts depends on the individual and how much support they get. Remember to have regular conversations with them so you can gauge how they are feeling and doing.
The healing process doesn’t mean you have to forget about a loved one. It means you should remember them with love and let good memories stimulate good feelings that will support you all while you continue to enjoy life.
Things to avoid when you explain death to a child
As well as things you should do, there are also certain things to avoid.
1. Try not to tell your child ‘Don’t cry’
Never chastise your child for crying or displaying sadness and vulnerability. Telling them to toughen up or be a big kid can be very damaging and have long-lasting effects on their outlook on death and overall emotional health.
2. Don’t try to be a perfect role model
If you’re deeply upset about losing a loved one, do your best to help your child through the difficult times. However, don’t expect to be perfect. You might not be able to answer every one of their questions perfectly every time, and know that it’s alright to cry in front of your children.
3. Don’t skip the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’
It’s much clearer to say someone has died rather than use euphemisms. Saying that a loved one has gone to sleep, passed away, or gone on a long, long journey, for example, can send the wrong message to kids.
4. Don’t avoid the topic of death altogether
If you try to avoid the issue of death, it places a mark of a taboo on the subject. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died because the pain of re-living memories or sharing stories aids in healing and closure.
5. Don’t change your family routine
Children need to have consistency in their lives. Try to keep to your usual daily routine as much as possible. Also, encourage them to take part in their regular activities such as social and school events.
Should you take the child to the funeral
When it comes to attending a funeral, there are no hard and fast rules or funeral etiquette you should follow. Never tell them they have to attend or make them feel guilty if they choose not to go. Give them a choice.
Tell your child what to expect from a funeral
It’s important to give children a choice if they’re old enough to make the decision. If they are younger and you want them to join in rituals such as a viewing, funeral, or memorial service, the key is to tell them ahead of time what to expect.
There are lots of different types of funeral services, but if they know what to expect, it can help them understand what has happened and to be able to say goodbye.
Turn to child bereavement services if needed
When you’re helping a child deal with the death of a loved one, take things one day at a time. If at any time you feel you’re struggling to cope, there’s no reason you should go it alone. Lots of support is available from friends, relatives, teachers at your child’s school, healthcare professionals, and others. There are also lots of books to explain death to a child.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help and advice, when you feel you and your family need it. Check our contact page for bereavement services to get an expert by your side.