The concept of dying and death can be very confusing for children. Younger ones might see their cartoon characters get blown up on TV, then shake themselves off and keep going. Children might also not know what to do with their big feelings or how to handle other’s reactions during this time. Parents can help their children process this natural phenomenon in life so although sadness might be felt, the child isn’t also overly anxious or scared.
How a parent responds to his or her child’s experience of death will depend on that child’s age and developmental stage. These suggestions are more for younger children, and I will post some resources for children of all ages at the bottom of this piece.
I’d say the goals of explaining death to children are:
1) To avoid negative associations
2) To clear up confusion
3) To give space and permission for big feelings
4) To reassure the child s(he) is safe
Here are some things to consider when speaking to children about death:
As my mother had passed away before my children were born, I expected they would eventually ask where she is. Also, when children start going to daycare or school, they will encounter other children who have experienced death. My five year-old came home one day and said, “My friend’s Daddy died.” (I’ll speak more about that lower down).
When my children were two years-old, I started talking about how things that are living will eventually die, using non-threatening examples like insects and plants. One day we found a huge spider who had died—its body was perfectly preserved. I picked the spider up and said, “This spider isn’t alive anymore.” My son looked at me with a confused look on his face.
“Because it’s body was too broken to keep living.” I waited to see if he had questions, which he didn’t, so we spend time looking at the spider, laid it down gently, and continued playing.
The key to introducing it early is to use simplified language and create pauses to see if your child wants to keep talking about it. If your child doesn’t have any questions, leave the topic for another time when you might explain more as the child ages.
A negative association is when the brain pairs two experiences together in an irrational way like, “People die in hospitals—ALL of them! *Hospitals are bad.” Also, “I might die when I fall asleep. *Sleeping is BAD!”
Steer clear of using terms like, “Your friend is resting in peace,” or, “Auntie Susan has gone away,” or, “That’s what happens when people get old,” and, “Grandma went to sleep and didn’t wake up.” Make it clear that death is not about sleep, leaving or being old.
Also, I don’t recommend introducing this topic in a context of religious faith, as the ideas will be too unclear for a young child to understand. For example, if you tell a child that the death of his loved one happened because of “God’s Will,” that child might be fearful, expecting God to come and take him, too. Similarly, if you say, “Your cousin is in heaven now—he’s happy there,” yet the child sees people around him grieving, he might wonder if my cousin is so happy, why are you all sad about that?!
The last thing is to avoid is a negative association between dying and doctors or hospitals. Children can become quite fearful of hospitals if they believe it is where dying happens (they will assume this is the case EVERY time). You can say something like this, “Uncle Fred is in the hospital so the doctors can do their best to help him.”
To reduce confusion and fear, use factual words to explain what death is. Focus on the part of the body “that stopped working.”
Here are some examples:
“Our dog Shirley has died because her stomach was too sick to keep working. She wasn’t able to eat anymore.”
“Grandma has died. She had an illness called ‘cancer’ that caused her lungs to stop working. She wasn’t able to breathe anymore.”
“Daddy’s body was too broken to keep working. His heart stopped beating.”
“Your brother’s motorcycle was hit by a car. The crash (don’t use the word “accident”—stay to the facts) caused his body to be too broken to work right.”
After your initial statement, pause and wait for questions. If you hear, “what’s an illness” or “what is cancer” answer those calmly and clearly. Perhaps something like this, “Cancer/illness sometimes happens when parts of our body stop working right—we might know what causes this but sometimes we don’t.” To alleviate fear, you might say something like, “We will do our best to prevent cancer/ illnesses by eating well, drinking water, exercising, getting outside time, sleeping enough and not smoking.”
It can be quite shocking when you are carrying on with your day and suddenly a child asks, “Mommy, are you going to die?” I have also heard this in the middle of nowhere, “Your mommy died, right?”
Regardless of how badly we want to assure our children that nothing challenging will ever happen, being truthful, and not scary is the approach that will be most helpful for our children. As I mentioned above, keep answering your child’s questions with neutral words. Using the examples above, I recommend saying something like:
“Yes, I am going to die someday. Everything that is alive will eventually die. But I expect to be living a really long time, and I’ll do my best to make choices that help me live longer.”
For the other example, I have said, “Yes she did. I miss my mommy and feel sad sometimes. Were you thinking about her?” If time permits, I might show my curious child a picture of my mother.
In the case of my child’s statement, “My friend’s Daddy died,” I started with questions:
“Did your teacher or your friend tell you?”
He said, “My friend.”
I then asked, “What did he tell you?”
He replied with, “He told me that his Dad’s brain was sick and he died.”
So I asked, “Do you have any questions?” He shook his head “no” so we continued driving along, listening to the radio.
When explaining or asking your children about death and dying, include your feelings and check in about theirs. Perhaps say something like this, “I feel very sad that Auntie’s dog has died. I loved her and miss her. Do you feel sad, too?” Acknowledge the feeling first and then ask what can be done to feel better afterward:
“Sometimes when I am missing someone, I look through pictures of that person or go do something that I like to do. Would you like to look at pictures or put the dinosaur puzzle together?” This gets the child thinking that helping himself feel better is a power he has—the child then grows self-regulation skill building.
Children need to feel safe when they hear about sad or scary things happening in their environment. Assure your child that although big feelings might be happening, there are people and strategies around to help things get better. Feelings come and go—they won’t stay forever.
This is obviously a big topic, which is difficult to fully address in one post. For those families who have lost a close family member, I strongly recommend seeking the support of a trusted grief counselor. Trained mental health professionals can work with children to manage and process the big emotions (and sometimes big negative behaviours) that can happen after the loss of someone important to them.
If you would like more information, I suggest these resources:
-Your local funeral home or trusted clergy leader often have good support information for bereaved families.
-Counsellors in your area that specialize in childhood grief. I am a member of two organizations that I know could help you find someone: the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and the American Psychotherapy Association
-Psychologist Laura Markham, PhD has a great list of books to read to children on the topic of death and dying.
-My Facebook page, where I post free parenting resources.