Losing a family member or loved one is one of the most devastating events a person experiences in their lifetime. It's extremely painful and difficult to cope with the loss, even for adults, which means that children may struggle with the experience even more, especially if this is the first time they are hearing the word 'death.' Explaining death to children will help them develop an understanding of the concept, which may help them mourn and cope with the loss of a loved one.
How to Explain Death to a Child
As a parent, you may be wondering if your child is old enough to understand what death is and if having the conversation about it would be more confusing than helpful. According to research, children can understand some concepts of death as early as age three and are able to develop a full understanding by ages five to seven. As a matter of fact, research shows that children are better able to understand the concept of death, as well as cope with it, when they are made aware of it early on in life.
Talk Openly and Honestly
It can be difficult for children to understand a complex subject, which is why it's helpful to discuss the concept of death openly and honestly with your child. Using more nuanced or flowery language can be confusing for young ones who may not have encountered an experience with death before. Trust that your child is capable of understanding what death is, and also trust yourself as their teacher as you take on the topic together. It's likely that your child will have lots of questions for you, and it's important to not put pressure on yourself and just answer them as best you can. Some phrases to avoid that may cause confusion for your child are:
- They've gone away for a while.
- They're sleeping or needed to rest.
- They passed away/on.
- They were taken from us.
Give a Simple Explanation and Use Examples
If a child has never experienced the death of a loved one before or even heard the word, it may be easier for them to learn about the subject in as simple terms as possible. This can be as to the point as saying "death means that something is no longer alive," or any other variation that you are comfortable with. After discussing the definition, you may want to give examples from nature or the real world to help make sure the concept is clear. Some examples to use are:
- When a leaf falls off a tree and turns brown, it has died and is no longer living.
- If someone cuts down a tree, and it's no longer able to grow, then it has died.
- When flowers wilt and turn all brown and crinkly, it's because they have died.
Break Down the Concept of Death Into Manageable Parts
Death is a complex subject that involves many different parts that can be confusing for a child to understand as a whole. Breaking down the concept into more easily understandable parts may help children better understand what death means, as well as answer some of the questions that they may have about it during your conversation.
One aspect of death that can be helpful for your child to understand is that death is permanent. Explain to them how it is irreversible, and that no matter how much you wish you could, you cannot bring someone back after they have died. According to studies, this is usually the easiest subject surrounding death for children to understand. Some ways of explaining this are:
- When someone dies, it's not like when someone is hurt. They can't heal and come back.
- Even if you really wish for it to happen, loved ones won't come back to us after they have died.
- When someone dies, it can't be taken back, or changed, or reversed.
Talk About Inevitability
Losing a loved one is devastating, and it's not unusual for people to feel like the world is out to get them or that they are being punished for something they did, and kids can feel this way too. Letting your child know that death is a part of life is one way of helping them understand why people die. This may also help them realize that they in no way caused the death of their loved one. You may find it helpful to use the circle of life as an example during your talk. Some ways of explaining this are:
- In the circle of life, people are born, they live and love, and then they die, and other people are born along the way, and they get a chance to live and die too.
- People can't live forever. Their bodies aren't meant for it, and when their bodies are tired, they die.
- Everybody that lives will eventually die at some point, even both of us, but that's a long way from now.
Another way of explaining death to children is by grounding it in biology and explaining how only living things can die. You do not need to get into the details of any biological processes, but helping kids understand that the body stops working is one way of allowing them to grasp what the concept of death looks like in the real world. Some ways of explaining this are:
- When people get really sick or hurt, their bodies can stop working.
- Sometimes, when someone is very sick, their body becomes too weak to keep working the way that it should.
- People need their heart to work in order to live, and when people die, their heart stops beating.
Disclose the Cause
Why did they die? It's likely that your child may ask you about the cause of death, and it can be helpful to explain it to them. Giving them a reason for why someone died can help them have a more complete picture of death as a whole, and enable them to better understand what happened in the specific situation you are discussing. Knowing how/why something happened, even in simplified terms, can help kiddos understand the process. Some ways of discussing this are:
- Their heart got tired because they struggled with their health, and eventually it stopped working.
- They were diagnosed with a disease/condition that made it hard for them to stay healthy.
- They were sick for a long time and their body became weak from trying to fight it off.
Discuss the Afterlife
But where do people go after they die? This is a question that your child may likely ask you after you explain to them what death is. This is a complicated question that is best to answer honestly based on the ideas and values you and your family teach in your household. Some ways of discussing this are:
- When people we love die they watch over us and protect us from a different place.
- When someone dies, their soul rejoins the earth and they are able to rest.
- Some people think that we go to a paradise when we die, and others think we are reborn. What do you hope/think?
Ways to Help Children Cope
Just as you may be deeply affected by the loss, it's likely that your child is as well. As a parent, there are ways to help your child cope with the grieving process and better understand their feelings surrounding the death of a loved one.
After your child learns about death or experiences the loss of a loved one, they may be scared, confused, or sad, among other things. It's important to provide them with as much support as possible during this difficult time in order to help bring them comfort as they adjust to their new experiences. Some ways to provide support are:
- Allowing them to stay home from school for a few days if needed
- Hugging them often and giving them extra attention
- Checking in with them and seeing how they are feeling
Tell Them About What Comes Next
If this is the first time your child has experienced the loss of a loved one, they likely won't know about the ceremonies and events that follow. Be transparent with your child and keep them in the loop about what is to come surrounding the death. This gives them the opportunity to digest the information and help prepare themselves for experiencing the ceremonies. Some things you may want to discuss with your child are:
- Whether they want to attend the ceremonies/the importance of them
- That there may be a lot of people crying at events or giving your family their condolences
- What exactly is going to happen, such as a funeral, a wake, a celebration of life, etc.
Listen to Their Needs
Your child may not want to attend the funeral or visit the gravesite of the loved one who has died, and that's okay. Listening to your child's needs and being understanding about them needing space is important in helping them feel understood and supported while they grieve and try to cope with their emotions. Ask your child:
- Whether they want to visit the gravesite
- If they want to put away items related to the person who has died, or if they want to bring more of them out around the house
- Whether they feel comfortable talking about the person who has died
Reassure Them That They Are Not Going to Die
When kids are exposed to death for the first time, it can be a particularly impactful life experience. Kids may start to become interested in death and want to learn more about it and the life cycle, or they may develop a fear that they themselves will die, or that their parents and other loved ones will pass away as well. You can return to the topics related to death and explain to them that both of you are in good health and that neither of you are in the final stages of the life cycle. Your child may not believe you, since the topic of death can be so jarring, but there are other ways you can reassure them of your health, such as:
- Scheduling a health check-up with a doctor for you and your family
- Talking to your child about making healthy eating and lifestyle choices and incorporating them into your daily life
- Promising to go to the doctor whenever you feel sick, and to continue health check-ups
Experiencing death can bring with it a lot of emotions, many of which can be difficult for any person to accept, understand, and cope with. Seeking help from a mental health professional is one way of assisting your child through the grieving process, and it may allow you to seek some support of your own. Some options for therapy are:
- Allowing your child to attend individual sessions
- Attending family therapy together as a unit
- Finding a grief counselor for children in your area
Look After Their Health and Your Own
People who have experienced the death of a loved one are at an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety, which is why it's important to look after the health of your child, as well as your own health. When grieving, it's easy for people to forget to eat or to experience stress as they try to cope with their emotions and make arrangements for the loved one who has passed. Monitoring the health of your family can be important in the long term, and that means that you need to take care of yourself as well. Some ways of looking after family health are:
- Maintaining your appetite and trying to eat healthy when possible
- Being sure everyone tends to their basic hygiene
- Talking to your family about how they feel on the outside and inside
Resources for Parents on Explaining Death to Children
Don't worry parents, you definitely don't have to rely on one conversation about death to explain the concept and all of its sensitivities to your child. There are several resources in the world, both physical and online, that are designed to help teach kids about death and cope with any emotions they are experiencing because of it.
Children's Books About Death and Coping
There are many children's books that are specifically designed to help teach kids about the concept of death, as well as how to understand their emotions and find ways to keep the memory of their loved ones alive. Some of these books include:
Media Resources to Help Kids Understand Death
Another way to help supplement the concepts you covered in your conversation about death with your child is to turn to online media. Some helpful videos to watch and discuss with your child are:
A Note for Parents
If you are talking to your child about death because your own family has experienced the loss of a loved one, know that it's equally as important to be gentle with yourself at this time. Paying attention to your own mental and physical health needs, allowing yourself to take breaks from the conversation, and giving yourself time to grieve are all ways of helping care for yourself and your child as you have this difficult conversation. You do not have to be strong for your child when discussing the death of a loved one, and you can be a role model for your child by showing them that it's okay to feel and express your emotions at this time, whatever they may be. If you don't feel ready to have the conversation just yet, allow yourself some time to cope. It's okay to respect your own needs and healing.
Explaining Death to Children
Talking to a child about death can be emotionally draining and cause parents to worry about whether they are saying the right thing. Don't get caught up in whether you are saying the exact right phrase at the perfect time to help them understand. There is no perfect way to explain death to a child, and as long as you're talking to them honestly and using simplified language, you are doing a great job. Research shows that most parents don't talk to their kids about death until the child has already experienced it in some way, but that children actually show a better understanding and acceptance of the topic when parents teach them about it beforehand. Try talking to your child about death whenever you're ready, and be sure to look after your own emotional needs along the way.