Talking to Children about Death

Sad child and mother embracing.

A death in the family is incredibly difficult for survivors. You have arrangements to make, accounts to settle, and, most difficult of all, you have to explain the situation to the children who are involved. Children will often ask why something bad happened to their family. You may not have the answer, but there are strategies you can use to help children cope with a terrible situation.

How to start the conversation

While many adults think children are unaware of death, most kids have heard mention of the subject. Maybe they encountered talk of death on the playground, saw an animal on the side of the road, or experienced loss through books or cartoons. Of course, this doesn’t mean they understand the permanence of the situation. And it does not prepare them for a traumatic event involving someone close to them. It just means you may not be starting from zero.

When you approach talking to children about death, keep a few things in mind:

1. Children can tell you when they are ready.

A child who experiences a traumatic loss may not be ready to talk about it when you are. When you are starting the conversation, begin by observing. Watch to see how they are reacting and let them trigger a dialogue.

2. Start with listening.

If children have questions, listen. Hear what they are saying. Seek to understand how they perceive the situation. This will inform your conversation.

3. Provide the right amount of information.

Use your best judgment when giving children details about an event. You don’t want to give a child who is confused too much information, just as you don’t want to give a mature child too few answers.

4. Try to be honest.

Taking into account the child you are speaking to, be honest about the situation. It can be hard to talk openly about what happened, especially when you are dealing with a loss yourself, but you do not want to mislead a child into thinking a loved one who has passed away might come back. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against shielding children. Similarly, you don’t want to promise children everything will be okay because loss is inherently difficult. What you can promise children is that they are not alone, and never will be with you at their side.

Acknowledge that you do not have all the answers

When talking to children about death, Hospice encourages you to tell children that there are no good or definite answers. You are allowed to say, “I just don’t know the answer to that one,” if a child brings up a difficult question. Admitting when you are at a loss may actually comfort children. Death is the one certainty of life and also the one thing no one understands entirely. If a child is confused by death, it may be reassuring to know that death confuses everyone.

Hospice goes on to say that you should explain to children that there are different opinions about death. Some people believe in an afterlife and some do not. Hospice believes that if you tell children you respect other people’s beliefs, children will feel comfortable forming opinions of their own as they try to understand a traumatic loss.

Seeking professional help in times of loss  

There may be times when a tragedy occurs and you need help talking with children. You may even be struggling to come to terms with a particular death yourself and feel unqualified to help someone else. If you need help, resources are available. Grief counseling is a form of psychotherapy and it may help your family manage the stress of a loss. Remember, asking for help in difficult times is a sign of strength – not weakness.

At Aftermath, we cannot take away the pain of a loss. Nor can we predict how family members, especially children, will process a loss. We can only assure you that if you require our services, if your family experiences a traumatic event, the physical consequences of that event will be removed thoroughly and safely. This way you and your family can focus on healing at your own pace.