How to Explain Death and Dying to Children

Michele Meleen
Mother comforting child

Death is an inevitable part of life for all people, including children. Explaining a death to a child can often be uncomfortable, but providing honest and factual information will help the child grieve in a healthy way.

Tips for Talking to Children About Death

Talking to children about death is never easy and not something parents and caregivers prefer to bring up. Hospicenet.org suggests that explaining death to children may be easier when they don't have so many emotions involved. For example, you can take the opportunity to create teachable moments when children come across dead insects or see death in a movie. Discussing death in general terms can help prepare both caregivers and children to better understand and cope with more personal deaths when they occur.

What to Say

When explaining death to children of any age, Hospicenet.org recommends keeping these key points in mind:

  • Provide accurate information.
  • Be comfortable and open with your feelings to make it easier for children to talk.
  • Use appropriate, understandable, simple, and quick explanations.
  • Always reassure children that it is okay to have feelings and okay to talk about them.

What Not to Say

The Child Development Institute offers this list of words and phrases to avoid when explaining death to children.

  • Avoid making a connection between death and sleeping. Don't say things like, 'she died in her sleep,' or 'death is like sleeping.'
  • Avoid talking about 'eternal rest' or saying that the deceased is in their 'final resting place.'
  • Don't tell your child that the person 'went away.'
  • Avoid sharing that the person died because they were old or sick.
  • Don't tell a child that, 'God took her to heaven,' or that the deceased is, 'with God now.'

While some of these words and phrases might seem comforting or safe, they can be confusing and frightening to children.

When to Seek Out a Professional

Talking about, and dealing, with death can stir up a lot of emotions and be difficult to manage. Marie Curie, an organization that offers support to terminally ill patients and their families, suggests seeking professional help from a counselor or therapist if your child exhibits any of these warning signs:

  • Frequent and long-lasting depressed moods
  • Self-injurious behaviors
  • Talk about joining a deceased person
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Any major, lasting changes in mood or behavior

Explanations for Toddlers

Infants and children under the age of 3 can't understand a lot about death, according to The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families at Zero to Three. During this stage of life, children can recognize changes in their environment including routine and caregiver emotions. If a child of this age asks about a deceased loved one, a simple answer like "Grandma is not here anymore, we all miss her very much," should be sufficient.

The Child Mind Institute recommends keeping life as normal as possible for very young children to help them cope with death. If you are having trouble managing your grief during this time, ask for help from family and friends to keep up your little one's routine.

Explanations for Preschoolers

Children ages three to five tend to have a literal view of the world. KidsHealth.org suggests using basic, concrete wording when providing explanations about death to this age group. Saying things like, "Aunt Jane's body stopped working and the doctor couldn't fix it," is appropriate. The Child Development Institute echoes these suggestions and adds that using explanations which include the absence of normal body functions can be helpful. An example would be to say that "Daddy's body doesn't work anymore so he can't talk, eat, move, or go potty."

The experts at Healthychildren.org warn that solely religious explanations do not work well with this age group because the information is not a concrete concept young children grasp easily. Preschool-aged children do not understand that death is permanent, final, and happens to all living beings. It is important to keep in mind how a child's mind will process information at this age so you don't confuse or overwhelm them.

Common Emotions and How to Cope

Grief is an incredibly individualized experience and children may cope and experience it in a variety of ways. Very young children may experience anger, confusion, anxiety, sadness, or indifference. All of these are common emotions for children of this age dealing with grief. The Fred Rogers Company suggests a few ways caregivers can help young children deal with these emotions:

  • Frequent hugging
  • Talking about the deceased
  • Spending quiet time together
  • Including children in family expressions of grief
  • Draw a picture about feelings

Common Questions and Sample Answers

At this age, children may ask questions that seem inappropriate or are difficult to answer. Hospicenet.org suggests it is okay for adults to say they don't know the answer as opposed to making something up on the spot. The Healing Center shares that it is common for children of this age to be repetitive with the questions they ask. This is part of the way young children learn, so try to have patience and answer questions each time with a consistent answer.

A few questions you might hear from this age group are:

  • Can a dead person eat, go potty, talk, etc.?
    • Sample Answer: No. When a person dies every part of their body stops working.
  • Will the deceased be home for dinner?
    • Sample Answer: I'm sorry, but he won't be here for dinner today or any other day.
  • Where do dead people go?
    • Sample Answer: Nobody really knows, but I believe (insert your beliefs here).
  • Will you die?
    • Sample Answer: I hope to live a long, long time. No matter what, someone will always be here to take care of you.

Additional Resources

Zero to Three recommends these books for toddlers and preschoolers learning about death:

Explanations for School-aged Children

Level of Understanding

Hospicenet.org shares that children ages six to ten don't see death as something that can happen in their lives, but they do realize it is final. It is also common for children in this group to personify death by thinking of it as a skeleton or angel that comes to take people away. Children may believe that their behavior can cause someone to die or come back to life. According to Kidshealth.org, school-aged children seek honest, simple, and accurate explanations.

One way to begin conversations about death with this age group is by asking what the child already knows and thinks about death, according to Hospicenet.org. This can give caregivers a starting point along with the opportunity to correct any inaccurate information.

Common Emotions and How to Cope

The National Institutes of Health shares a resource that says that school-aged children may go through a wide range of emotions when thinking about or dealing with death such as:

  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety
  • Denial
  • Regression
  • Fear of Death
  • Physical issues like stomach aches

Counseling children through grief can happen in a variety of ways. One way to help is by approaching the child from time to time to ask open-ended questions about how they are handling the situation. Keep it simple; something like "I know you must really miss [name of the person who passed away] and I do too. How are you doing?" Then wait for a response. If the child says that he is doing fine, tell them that if they have a time where they don't feel okay, you are available to listen if they want to talk.

The Community Hospice Grief Center and UC Davis offer these ways to help children deal with their feelings:

  • Give them a chance to talk to the dead person through a letter in the casket or balloon release.
  • Encourage creative outlets like writing stories and drawing pictures.
  • Reminisce about the deceased.
  • Get together with other people feeling the same way like family or friends.
  • Encourage physical activity to help keep feelings from being stuck inside.

Common Questions and Sample Answers

At this age, children may be interested in what death feels like both internally and externally. A few common questions are:

  • Is death like sleeping?
    • Sample Answer: No, when we sleep our body is still working because we still breathe and move. When a person is dead their body doesn't work at all.
  • Why did she die?
    • Sample Answer: There are a lot of different reasons why people die. Most people die when their body gets old and has trouble working.
  • Will I die?
    • Sample Answer: All things that are alive will die one day. You and I plan to live a long time though.
  • Does it hurt to die?
    • Sample Answer: Not usually. When a body is dead it can't feel anything at all.
  • What happens to dead bodies?
    • Sample Answer: After a body dies it needs to be taken care of because it will change in the way it looks. Some people choose to bury dead bodies in a cemetery where they go to remember that person.

Additional Resources

This age group has easier access to counseling services since most schools have a school counselor, social worker or psychologist available on site. Many of these services run specialized groups for children dealing with common issues like divorce and grief. If you feel your child would benefit from some extra help, contact your child's school to find out what resources are available to you for free.

At this age, children are not typically spending a lot of time alone online but there are websites like Childgrief.org and Kidsaid.org that offer information and activities for them. There are many books available to help parents talk about death with children. UC Davis recommends Living the Dying Process: A Guide for Caregivers by Jody Gyulay. Books for children are also available:

Explanations for Teenagers

Level of Understanding

By this time, teenagers understand death in the same way adults do. They comprehend that death is final, permanent, inevitable, and has many causes. This can make it easier to explain dying because young people can more easily understand such a difficult concept. Although teenagers can grasp what death means easily, Healthychildren.org suggests teens may be more resistant to expressing grief than younger children. While teenagers understand what death is, they now struggle with death in a much more philosophical way.

This may be a good time to involve your religious beliefs into discussions with your child. In learning what others believe about death and the purpose of life, teens can formulate opinions and satisfying answers.

Common Emotions and How to Cope

Grieving teens will feel a lot of the same emotions as younger children: sadness, anger, guilt, and helplessness. During the grieving process, it is common for teens to exhibit guilt for being alive when a loved one dies as well as anger for not being in control of life and death.

Healthychildren.org suggests the following ways to encourage healthy grieving:

  • Be open to talking or suggest talking to others.
  • Encourage creative outlets like writing and art.
  • Listen to music to relax.
  • Use physical activity to reduce tension.
  • Teach them to ask for help.

Additional Resources

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides a resource page for youth that can supplement your conversations. In addition, a few worthwhile reads are:

Death as a Part of Life

Talking about death may be difficult, but you owe it to your children to be honest about this natural part of life. Factual information along with an open attitude can help children deal with grief in healthy and appropriate ways.

How to Explain Death and Dying to Children