Explaining Death to Children
The Australian Parenting Network ~ raisingchildren.net.au
Talking with your child about death and dying can be difficult, especially if you’re grieving yourself. But talking about these things together, as openly and honestly as you can, will help your child understand what’s happening.
Once you know a loved one has died, take the time to explain this to your child as soon as you can. If your child finds out by accident, or from someone he isn’t close to, he might be confused and angry.
If you have more than one child in your family, you might talk with the children together or tell each child what has happened individually. It can help to think about the age, stage and temperaments of your children when deciding how to tell them about the death.
What to say when talking about death
Your child needs your help to understand death. So it’s best to explain what has happened as simply and truthfully as you can. For example, ‘I have some sad news. Your Aunty Sal died this morning’.
Using the word ‘death’ can avoid problems. If you say that someone has ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’, your child might be confused or frightened. For example, a child who is told that ‘Grandpa has gone to sleep forever’ might get scared of sleeping because she’s afraid she’ll never wake up.
Younger children might not know what death means, so you might need to describe it and make sure they understand that death doesn’t go away. For example, ‘Dying means that Aunty Sal’s body has stopped working. She can’t breathe or move, or cuddle you anymore’.
If you feel very uncomfortable talking about death, you might need to practise with another adult first. You could go through what you’ll say and how you’ll answer your child’s questions. Or you might like to write down a few notes as reminders.
It can also help to think about what you’ll say if you don’t know the answer to your child’s questions. It’s OK to say something like, ‘I don’t know but I’ll try to find out’.
Just like adults, children’s feelings when someone dies can range from sadness to anxiety and everything in between. But children don’t always have words to express their feelings. This means they might need your help to understand, name and cope with their feelings.
How to answer questions about death
When someone dies, your child will probably have questions. If you think ahead about answering these questions, you’ll be ready when your child asks. This can make things easier for both of you.
Why did they die?
Your child is trying to make sense of death. He might want to know what caused the death, so try to answer the question at his level. For example, ‘Grandpa’s heart was very old and wasn’t working the way that it should. The doctors tried to fix it, but it had a very bad sickness that they couldn’t fix’.
Will you die? Will I die?
Your child might start to realise that the people she loves could die. It’s a good idea to let her know that most people die only when they’re really old and very sick.
If the death involved a young person, let your child know that this doesn’t happen very often. You could also point out how many other people he knows of the same age who are alive and well.
What happens when you die?
How you answer this question depends on your family’s personal or spiritual beliefs. You could talk with your children about these beliefs.
Many people find comfort in giving their children something to focus on when thinking about the person who has died. For example, ‘When we see a star in the sky, we can think about Nanna’.
Whatever you tell your child, it’s helpful if it comforts you too. This way your child can see that you find it reassuring yourself.
Your child might ask questions that seem a bit strange, like ‘Does Grandpa feel cold when he’s dead?’ or ‘Can Grandma see me now?’. Try to answer these questions because they help your child to understand what death is.
If the death happened during a traumatic event – for example, a natural disaster or a car accident – you might like to read our articles on first responses to trauma, supporting your child after trauma and looking after yourself after trauma.
How to handle your own feelings about death
It’s OK for your child to see that you’re sad, or to see you cry, when someone important to you dies. But it’s also a good idea to explain your feelings to your child. For example, ‘I’m crying because Grandpa died and I feel very sad that I’ll never see him again’.
It might help you to talk to a trusted friend or family member about your feelings.
If your feelings are making it hard for you to do everyday things, even after some time has passed, you might need to get some support.