Family, Kids & Relationships

How to talk to your children about death

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Kids will inevitably be exposed to the concept of death at some point, and are bound to have questions when that time comes. They may have lost a grandparent, a friend or teacher, or a beloved pet—or maybe they simply found a dead bird at the park and wondered why it wasn’t moving.

Kids may also grieve things like the death of a favorite celebrity, fatal violence in the news, a friend moving away, or another sense of loss. They may also hear about the topic of death and suddenly be afraid of losing you or other loved ones.

What to say if your child asks about death

Remember, kids mature at their own pace (which doesn’t always match up with their calendar age); you know your child and what level of info they can handle best. Also, your family may have spiritual beliefs or values around death that you’d want to share, so adapt this script to your family’s needs however you see fit. Here’s what to say if your child asks you about death—

  • Reassure them. You can say, “What makes you ask that? Well, first—you have me and lots of people in our family who love you, and we’re going to be around for a long, long time. Just like trees, bugs, and other living things, though, all people and animals eventually die.” 
  • Be honest. You can say, “When something or someone dies, their bodies don’t work anymore. They can’t get fixed and they can’t come back. We can remember them, and we can still love them. But after they die, we can’t see them again or make new memories.”
  • Provide more reassurance. “Usually it’s because they’re really old, really sick, or they have a really bad accident. That’s why we do things to stay healthy and safe like getting checkups at the doctor, and driving carefully.” Emphasize the word “really” here to help them understand that they don’t have to worry about each birthday or cold.
  • If the question is regarding a specific loss…You can say, “I know that Max was so special to you. If you’re feeling sad, angry, confused or upset about not being able to see them anymore, it’s totally okay. And it’s okay NOT to feel sad, too. You can talk to me anytime or ask me anything, or we can just sit together quietly if you want.”

How to support a grieving child

If your child is grieving, it’s important to give them space to talk about and work through their feelings. Here are some other ways you can support a grieving child

  • Take care of yourself and manage your own grief
  • Allow them to grieve in their own way, which may come and go, and might even seem insensitive or oblivious (because kids are wired to be focused on their own needs)
  • Keep your routine consistent
  • Offer lots of affection in their love language (whether that’s cuddles, one-on-one time, or something else) 
  • Avoid ambiguous terms like “passed away” or “went to sleep” which can be confusing and scary for kids
  • Encourage play time (FYI, acting out scenarios of death or loss during play is healthy and therapeutic)
  • Read children’s books together about the type of loss they’re experiencing
  • Let them participate in a goodbye ritual of some kind
  • Tell stories of when you went through a similar kind of loss and how you got through it

Seek professional help if your child struggles with symptoms of grief for more than 6 months, or if their reaction is so severe that you’re worried about their mental or physical health.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.