Advice

10 Tips for Talking to Children About Death

Whether it’s losing an adored family pet, a beloved family member, or a dear friend, talking to children about death is something we all face eventually. It’s a highly emotional and difficult time to deal with as adults. But when the loss affects children, navigating this time is a delicate balance between teaching them about death responsibly and not traumatising them.

How do you explain the concept of death, or how do you deliver the news, especially if you don’t understand it yourself? How do you know the right way to talk to children about death? Is there even a right way? 

When my youngest child was 12, their best friend tragically passed away due to injuries sustained in a car accident. They were told via text message from another friend’s father. While I don’t believe this was the right way to share the news, everyone is different.

In 2021, when my grandmother passed, I called my teenagers out of their rooms and openly told them quickly, offering hugs if they wanted one. Was this the right way to go about it?  I still don’t know, but it was the best I could do at the time. This is often the case when you are talking to children about death. 

Every religion and culture deals with death and loss in their own way and these tips are good for anyone.

talking to children about death
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Tips for talking to children about death

1. Use the right language

The temptation to soften the blow is strong. For example, telling your child their pet ‘went to a farm upstate’ instead of telling them the truth feels like a gentle way to explain their absence. But there’s every chance, when your child grows up, that they will resent you and suffer the loss all over again.

Use words like ‘dead’ and ‘died’ because those words are what happened, and they shouldn’t be words your kids are afraid of.

2. Death is explainable

Death is a physical thing, and you can explain this to kids in age-appropriate terms. You could try explaining that someone’s heart has stopped and that means their body doesn’t work anymore and that is what we call death. Ask them if they have any questions and answer them as honestly as possible, offering to find any answers you don’t know.

3. Don’t wait too long

Sometimes it might seem like a good idea to wait. Especially when you’re struggling to wrap your head and heart around the loss too. But ‘ripping off the Band-Aid’ is much better. It gives them time to process what you’ve told them before they go to a funeral.

4. You don’t have to do it alone

Death is a hard thing to deal with as an adult and if you need a support person with you while you explain it to your kids, then do that. If you have multiple kids, you can choose to tell them separately, or together.

5. Prepare them for the funeral

Explain what a funeral is, why we have them, and what they can expect. Tell them about the location and what they can expect to see (religious symbols, pews, coffins, flowers, people wearing black, etc.). If they seem scared, take them to the location before the funeral to help make it seem less scary.

6. Be prepared for questions

They might ask why death happens, if you or they will die, if the deceased person can feel the weather, or smell things. Again, answer honestly and sensitively.

7. Validate feelings

Let your kids cry. Let them see you cry and let them know it’s because you’re sad. Reinforce the message that emotions are okay and it’s okay to cry, or be angry, or be scared, or be worried.

8. Offer professional help

Grieving takes many forms. When I found out a former boyfriend had passed, I was so devastated I couldn’t even go to his funeral. When my grandmother passed, I experienced some health anxiety and panic attacks. When someone who had hurt me died, I felt relief. Your kids will react in different ways too and as much as I would advise a friend to talk to someone if their grief is overwhelming, I would also advise they seek therapy for their kids if they are struggling.

9. Just be there for them

As they process what’s happened and prepare to say goodbye, they will need you. Offer as many cuddles as they might want or if they want you to leave them alone, do that, but check in regularly.

10. Give them a tangible connection to their lost loved one

This could be the artwork of pet paw prints, a framed picture of the person, a stuffed toy made out of an old shirt or having a nighttime picnic and choosing a star to look at when they’re missing them.

There’s no perfect way to explain to a child that someone they love isn’t coming back. But with some gentle parenting, straight talk and space for big feelings, you can walk your child through this difficult time and help them become stronger.

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Avatar of Tina Evans

Tina Evans is a complete introvert, an avid reader of romance novels, horror novels and psychological thrillers. She’s a writer, movie viewer, and manager of the house menagerie: three kelpies, one cat, a fish, and a snake. She loves baking and cooking and using her kids as guinea pigs. She was a teenage parent and has learned a lot in twenty-three years of parenting. Tina loves Christmas and would love to experience a white Christmas once in her life. Aside from writing romance novels, she is passionate about feminism, equality, sci-fi, action movies and doing her part to help the planet.

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