How to talk about death with children
Death is a very morbid topic that never gets brought up, unless the situation calls for it. Read more to find out what to say and what not say when it comes to talking to your kids about death.
My 4-year-old granddaughter, Mack, spends each day of her life with me while my son and daughter in-law are at work. But until nearly 4 months ago, we were not alone. Mack also had the privilege of spending her days with her great-great grandmother; better known as Granny.
Granny had lived with us for years, but at the age of 96, her body and mind were simply ‘old and all worn out’ in Mack’s words. On the day of Granny’s funeral, Mack looked and said, “Granny got so worn out. Jesus had to take her to Heaven to fix her, didn’t he?” And to that I said, “Yes, he did.”
Related: Dealing with the death of a child
Death is inevitable
Reality is, telling children about death is something that is going to present itself at some point. Whether it be the death of an older relative or even a pet, children need to know what death is all about. There are usually three questions you are most likely going to deal with when telling children about death.
Why did ‘they’ die?
Telling children about death and why they died should all be done tactfully, and also answered practically. In the case of an older person passing away, the simple truth that their body was old and worn out, is enough. In the case of a younger person passing away, you will most likely need to have a much deeper conversation, such as these:
- If the person has died of a disease such as cancer, you’ll need to explain that cancer caused so much sickness and pain in the person’s body that it wore out long before it should have.
- If the person died as a result of injuries from an accident, you will need to explain that their body was too broken for doctors to fix. Even though the doctors tried as hard as they could, some things just can’t be fixed.
- If the death is that of an infant (newborn or otherwise), explaining to your child that the baby was never going to be able to run, jump, talk or hug because their little body just wasn’t strong enough to grow will usually suffice.
When telling children about death, and how they died?
- Never tell a child the person went to sleep forever. Your child will never want to sleep again out of fear of never waking up.
- Be careful to not give too many details of a person’s pain and suffering. This is scary for a child as well emotionally upsetting.
What happens to someone when they die?
The answer to this question will be determined by your religious beliefs. It is comforting, however, for a child to know that the person they knew and loved is eternally free, and not ‘trapped’ inside a coffin buried in the ground.
The gentle truth when telling children about death
Death is a part of life. By being gentle, truthful and mindful of what questions are being asked (don’t read more into it than there is), you and your child will be able to cope, grieve and move forward when it happens to those you love.
Parents, share any tips or experiences you might have had when telling children about death.
Watch this video on how to talk to children about death: