Talking to Children About Death
Creating a safe place for questions and concerns
Nearly every death impacts a child—whether it’s the death of a parent, grandparent, distant relative or favorite pet. So when a death affects a child close to you, we believe it is important to talk to the child in honest, age-appropriate terms and provide them a safe place for their questions and concerns.
Regardless of their age, children deserve our best efforts to explain that death is natural and non-frightening.
Use concrete words, not euphemisms. Children are very literal and saying “Granddad went to sleep” may make the child afraid to go to sleep. Saying “He went away” may imply that the leaving was voluntary and the child may feel responsible for Granddad’s decision to leave. Instead, use words like “His body stopped working.”
“Forever” is a concept most children cannot grasp. So when a child asks, “When will Granddad be back?” gently reply that he cannot come back but we can remember him with pictures and memories. The comfort of sharing a favorite story or laughing about a fun time may help, and opens an opportunity for the child to reminisce.
Listen to questions and only answer what has been asked, rather than trying to provide more details than a child is ready to absorb. Questions may surface hours, days or even weeks after a death has occurred. Allowing your child to process at his or her own pace reinforces an open channel of communication.
Even as you talk honestly and at a level that is developmentally appropriate for the child, do reassure the child that you expect him or her to live a long, healthy life.
One of the best resources for family grief has been created by Sesame Workshop, the same nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street. A link to this resource may be found here: http://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/our-initiatives/when-families-grieve/.
"It’s precisely because children don’t understand what death is about that they need help from loving adults in talking about it."- FRED ROGERS, AKA MR. ROGERS