Talking With Children About Death

by Mark Edinberg, Ph.D.
More About Mark...

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be considered as counseling, psychotherapy, or specific advice to be followed. It is not meant to take the place of consulting with appropriate professionals for medical, legal, or psychological information or strategies. Rather, readers should take the points of the article and make their own personal judgments as to how and when to apply them if at all.

Children have understandings of death early in life. Eighteen month olds can identify a cemetery. Nursery rhymes and current popular movies such as The Lion King all have clear references to death and dying. Tthe Lion King is actually wonderful in that it talks about the circle of life.

Children also have different types of understanding of death depending on their level of development. Depending upon how they are able to conceptualize the world, 2 – 4 year old children understand death differently from older children and differently from adolescents. This means that a child’s understanding of a death not only varies, but that their understanding of a specific death may undergo changes as the child ages. Thus it may be necessary to revisit the death (gently, of course), as a child ages to see how he or she is understanding it at their current age.

When we think about how to talk about death with a child, we are well advised to think about how this child thinks about the world. We also should realize that in a few years, the child will have a different understanding about what has happened and may need to talk about it again as a different discussion.

In talking with children about a death, one consideration is what we expect of a child. Some of the STEREOTYPES about children that are NOT TRUE are:

  • Children do not understand death – In fact, children at all ages have varying understandings of death. At the youngest ages (3 – 5), children may think it is temporary or someone "going away." To the dismay of adults the child may ask when the person is coming back. From 6 – 9 children begin to think about the finality of death, from 9 – 12 they begin to understand the finality of death.
  • Children will be scared if they find out the truth – Not always. Frequently, when children become scared about a death, they are afraid about related issues, such as whether remaining parents or supports will also go away. They may also be reflecting fears and anxiety from the adults who are also involved in the family.
  • Children will become irreverent if they find out the truth – Many children seem to be quite serious and thoughtful when they find out about this issue.
  • Children do better if they are given platitudes that avoid the words "death" and "dying," such as "Mom has gone away" or "Mom is sleeping," – This is probably more an avoidance issue for the adult who is giving the news.
  • Children should NOT attend funerals or be involved in grieving – Again, this is more of an issue of the adults’ feelings. Perhaps they fear that the children will not be able to handle the service, or become disruptive (See below on how to handle this).

The following are true about children (in general):

  • Children do better to hear precise words such as "dead" and "death" rather than platitudes. It is hard enough for us to comprehend what the absence of another human being forever means, trying to make sense of them "going to sleep" or "to a better place" may only confuse the issue. Even if you are of a strong religious conviction that the person who has died has "gone to God," you can still include the fact that he or she is dead.
  • Children have some understanding of death
  • Children can be reassured while hearing the truth, particularly if you reassure them that others will care for them, that they can feel sad or even angry at the person who left and it is "OK" to feel that way, or even that the person who died loved them even if their last interaction was negative.
  • Children can handle the truth – While there are some circumstances that warrant thinking about parceling the truth out over time, such as the person who died being the driver in a drunk driving murder of others, portions of the truth are psychologically better in the long run that complete fabrications for both the child and the fabricator.
  • Children generally do better if given accurate information and the specifics that they ask for.
  • Children should be encouraged to attend funerals and be involved in grieving. Tthe best way to do this is to ask them if they want to go and make arrangements for a somewhat uninvolved adult to be with children so that if they need to leave a funeral service, the adult with them is not centrally involved in the service and can leave with the child.

Some specific ideas on how to talk with children about death are:

  • Keep it simple – Use words the child understands. Avoid jargon or long explanations. Short sentences are also better.
  • Ask the child what he/she wants to know. Give them time to digest what you have said.
  • Answer questions honestly but in the scope of what the child understands.
  • Have faith that the child can hear emotionally difficult issues.
  • Your level of anxiety will be transmitted – This one is difficult especially when you are bereaved as well. Being honest about your feelings (using words and physical expression) can help both of you avoid being overwhelmed.
  • Let the child act physically. Words may be harder for them. Let them paint, mold clay, run laps around the house or do whatever it may take at a moment in time for them to express themselves physically. Children do not always have the verbal ability to handle feelings. Letting them come out through appropriate physical activities is sensible.
  • Keep the issue of appropriateness clear. The child’s sense will be different from yours. Children may want to look into a coffin, they may want to NOT look into a coffin, they may want to put something in a coffin, their choices about actions usually reflect what they are thinking/feeling within their world view. If you are uncomfortable with what they want to do, be sure to let them know that their "feeling" is OK but that this is not the time or place for them to express it "that way."
  • Let the child perform acts they used to do with the deceased in the context of the person’s death. For example, if the child used to take walks with their dad, let them take a walk, but with another adult and let them talk about what they did with dad.
  • If the child is the one who is at risk (terminal illness, cancer, etc.), then make sure you use the resources available to parents when facing this type of situation. These support systems can help you communicate with your child in a positive way in order to help them understand their situation.

Above all, encourage the child to:

  • Express feelings as they come up;
  • Seek reassurance from others around him/her;
  • Revisit the death (emotionally) over time; and
  • Feel loved and reassured in the family.

References and Resources

Part of Me Died Too: Stories of Creative Survivial Among Bereaved Children and Teenagers by Virginia Fry. Virginia Fry is a wonderful art therapist/bereavement expert who lives in Vermont and works for a Hospice organization. If you can ever go to one of her presentations, it is well worth it.

Daddy and Me – Photostory of Arthur Ashe and his Daughter Camera by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.

Losing Uncle Tim by Marykate Jordan,  illustrated by Judith Freeman. (Ages 4-8)

How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness by Kathleen McCue

Available from ElderCare Online™                2000 Prism Innovations, Inc.