Child Behavior: How to make talking about death easier

Here's how to handle the tough questions

    Kids are constantly asking questions as a means of understanding this complex world of ours, and all parents experience the joy of being able to provide the answers for them.  Sometimes the questions asked however, can be challenging to answer. Such is the case when children ask about death, both in the abstract and when a person they knew or a pet has died.


    When my son was little, he would say things like, “Daddy don’t die! You’re not going to die, are you?” He asked me to promise him that I wouldn’t die. Although I assured him that I would probably not die for a long time, my lack of a hard and fast promise, which was often the case with other issues, lessened his anxiety, but did not leave him completely comfortable. I could have put his mind at ease by saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t die”, but that would have not been truthful, and he would have to unlearn what I told him at a later time.


    Many parents worry that by discussing death, it will fuel the child’s fears. Children who have a good grasp of the facts about death have an easier time discussing and accepting the concept—and the reality—when it does inevitably occur. Talking about and learning to accept death and the accompanying loss is an important part of a child’s development. A death, large or small, can also be a time for a family to share feelings, beliefs, and the processes that are a necessary part of healing grief.


    When a death in the family occurs many parents try to shield their children from the event as much as possible. Research is clear on this issue; permitting the child to be involved in the process, both by discussing the issues and being in attendance at the funeral, helps to alleviate a child’s anxiety and confusion. It also provides a mutual source of support. When a child asks about death and is denied honest responses, he will use his imagination to “create” an answer, and the longer these mysteries exist, the longer the confusion, and the more difficult they will be to correct. Loss is a part of being alive and the feelings accompanying the loss of a loved one adds a dimension to a child’s ability to care about others.


    When talking to your child about death don’t make euphemistic statements that may further confuse or frighten your child. Here are a few common statements to be avoided.


  • Grandma has gone to sleep forever. This may make your child fearful of bedtime or even naptime, believing there may be a possibility that once they go to sleep, they won’t wake up. 
  • Grandma is watching you from heaven. Your child may feel constantly spied upon and may become fearful of making mistakes or misbehaving. 
  • We have lost grandma, she has gone away. Your child may be confused and think, “If we lost her, why not try to find her.” This type of statement can also increase fears of separation, and when a parent “goes away” for any reason, they may, like grandma, never come back.
  • Grandma was so good, God chose her to live in heaven with him. Children may become apprehensive of being good and may believe that being good causes death. Philosophical and religious concepts may be comforting for adults. However, until a child is old enough to grasp these ideas, they may be confusing and frightening.


    When you do talk about death with your child, always present your thoughts honestly, simply, and compassionately, creating an atmosphere of comfort and openness. Be direct, encourage questions, and don’t be afraid to use the words death or dead in your explanation. If a loved one died, don’t try to hide your tears or sadness. A child needs to see that these emotions are acceptable to express. Reassure your child that memories of the person who died will be preserved through pictures, other keepsakes, and memories.


The following are some guidelines you might use to help structure your discussions:


  • Children under 5—usually don’t comprehend the permanence of death. Death is often seen as reversible and temporary. It’s important to explain that old age, accidents, or disease caused the death, and that the person will not return. They should be reassured that being bad or having angry thoughts don’t make people die.
  • Children 6-11—understand that death is not reversible. They can be told all the facts and should not be left out of the conversations, if they are interested. At this age children may feel both anger and guilt, as well as sadness, about the death and may need help communicating their ambivalent and often confusing feelings.
  • Adolescents—often have the most intense feelings of grief of any age group, and often have the most difficulty expressing their feelings. Although like children, they need support, they also want to be seen as adults and treated as such.

    Like adults, children, find comfort in rituals. The ritual of the preparation for the funeral and memorial service allows everyone some closure to the loss experience. This ritual process is the beginning of the healing of grief. The funeral provides a structured way of allowing and encouraging both adults and children to comfort each other and honor the person who has died.  Don’t try to shield your child from the realities of life, or be afraid to demonstrate to your child that you might not have all the answers.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College. He is available for speaking engagements to parent groups.