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Explaining Death to Your Kids

Explaining Death to Kids
If you and your family are going through a loss right now, you can help ease your children’s emotional burden by helping them understand death.

Explaining Death to KidsYou work hard to ensure your children have a positive upbringing. You strive to protect them from harm—both physical and emotional. But as much as you’d like to keep them from encountering pain or suffering, it’s impossible. Death is life’s one inevitability. You can’t make your loved ones live forever, and sadly, your children will discover this for themselves. If you and your family are going through a loss right now, you can help ease your children’s emotional burden by helping them understand death.

Strive for Honesty

Although you might want to hide the truth from your kids, it will make things more difficult if you obscure the truth. Rather than telling your kids that someone “went to sleep,” explain that bodies stop working when people are very old, sick, or are in serious accidents. Your kids should know what happens when people die (e.g., they stop breathing, talking, eating, thinking), but not to the point they are scared of dying. Hospice suggests adjusting your explanations based on your children’s ages and developmental maturity. Children who are very young often see death as temporary or impersonal, whereas children approaching their teen years begin to understand that death is permanent.

Answer Questions

The death of a loved one will be hard on everyone in the family, including yourself. Because of this, you might want to avoid talking about it. Although this might seem easier emotionally, your children will have questions that are important to answer. Children need brief answers grounded in simple concepts. Remember: communication occurs even when words aren’t being spoken. Avoiding their questions while you’re still telegraphing grief can confuse or upset them.

Be Gentle

Some parents are incredibly harsh with their children when they are trying to explain something. This is one topic where you must be as gentle as possible. Listen to and accept their feelings and fears. Try to channel your own grief or anger into a compassionate, relaxed conversation with your kids. It will be tough, but you can do it.

Prepare Yourself

If you think your child asks a lot of questions on a daily basis already, wait until you have this difficult conversation with them. Be prepared for this and plan out what you’d like to discuss. Think through some questions you think they might ask and decide beforehand how you will answer them. If you feel uncertain about how to prepare for this difficult conversation, you might want to talk to family counselor. This will help you better understand how to approach your child about death, and can even help you deal with grief.

Though it’s difficult to discuss, death is a normal part of life. Everyone will die; it’s just a matter of when and how. 

Here is a reading list for parents or teachers to share with kids:

Sad Isn’t Bad by Michaelene Mundy
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown
Gentle Willow by Joyce C. Mills

Have you ever had to talk to your children about death or dying? We’d love for you to share your experiences.

About the author

Kristin Personette

  • Maria Iemma

    This is a difficult subject. When my loving husband passed away it was extremely hard to explain why how death occurred. I appreciate the post.

  • Mare Wagenbach

    Death touches all of us at one time or another and sometimes it’s hard to know what to say to children but this is a good start and helpful.

  • I love this! My dad passed away when I was 8 and it still baffles me that my grandma asked my mom if she was going to tell us?!!?

  • shelleyb

    What a challenging topic for all ages. It’s a tough concept indeed.

  • Can’t imagine doing this to anyone in my family! Would break my heart!

  • Nena Sinclair

    This is something I’ve had to do. My Dad passed away when my sons were very young. The hospital lent me some really good books to read to them and they were a big help.

  • Ronald Gagnon

    Thanks for these ideas..especially in light that we just lost 2 brother-in-laws/uncles in the past 6 months…both under 63. The kids, and us, are still grieving and lost

  • Cheri Gamble

    This is a very tough subject and you handled it well. Thanks for sharing.

  • Megan Filzen

    Thank You for the bravery in this topic!

  • Heather Bestel

    As a psychotherapist I’ve dealt with this tough subject with my young clients in private practice and at school. Just giving a child or young person the time and space to talk and being there to listen is so important. We also use activities to help the process if appropriate. Things that are useful include: creating a memory box for your special person; having a letting go ceremony; writing a goodbye letter; creative visualisation and relaxation exercises; reading books together about bereavement; watching films in which someone dies and the simplest and often most useful strategy is to just let them talk and talk and talk whenever they need to. All these things help to aid the process of bereavement and can help you support your child with what can be the most overwhelming, confusing and painful time in their lives.

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