How to Speak to Children about Death

child doll on window sill

Death! It’s a scary enough proposition even for adults, so just imagine the daunting prospect it can represent to those too young to fully understand the concept. However, talking about death with your children is a vital stage in their development, which will help them to adjust to the natural way of things and cope with the loss of a loved one when it does inevitably happen.

Many people feel uncomfortable or challenged when they are asked about death by a child. If you’re unsure how to respond to their questions, read over the tips below and prepare your answers accordingly. After all, it could be one of the most important chats you ever have with them.

Choose your moment carefully

There’s no “good” time to talk about death, but if the topic surfaces naturally, don’t shy away from it. Fictional tales (for examples, Disney and Pixar films) are an excellent accessible segue into such a conversation, since they allow you to approach a complex idea from a simple angle. The death of a family pet represents a similar opportunity.

Keep things simple

At such a young age, many children can’t fully grasp what it means to die. Lay it out for them in uncomplicated, concrete terms, explaining that someone who has died will no longer breathe, or speak, or hear, or eat, and that we won’t be able to see them ever again. Gently but firmly convey the finality of death, since many fictional stories feature the resurrection of heroes and heroines, which can cause confusion.

Relate it to something relevant

The natural world is full of examples of death which can be easier for youngsters to digest and comprehend. For example, you could use the falling of leaves in autumn to symbolise how a tree gives birth to new life every year, which eventually withers away and dies.

Always be honest

It might be tempting to fudge your answers to a child, telling them a relative is simply sleeping or has gone away. However, this could give them neuroses about their own state – they may be afraid of going to bed or worry that you will “go away” as well. Even if they ask about your or their own mortality, it’s vital you keep your answers honest.

Reassure repeatedly

Despite this, you don’t want to frighten them with the imminent proposition that any of us could die at any moment. Instead, confirm that we will all die one day, but that most people live for a very, very long time and that you expect both yourself and the child to do so, as well.

Educate, don’t indoctrinate

Depending on your specific beliefs, you may wish to tell your child certain things about the afterlife. It’s completely natural to pass down a religion from one generation to the next, but you should still aim to inform the child that other people believe in other things. What’s more, you shouldn’t be afraid of simply revealing that no one actually knows where we go when we die. Be careful to accompany such statements with reassurance, however, since this admission could cause worry.

If a child close to you is coping with a bereavement, keep a close eye on them and ask them to tell you about their emotions. Explain that it’s natural to feel confused or overwhelmed, and it’ also important to discuss how other adults may behave differently and be upset. If you think it’s necessary you can suggest a councillor who has experience in bereavement for children.

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