How to Explain Death to a Child, A Step-by-Step Guide

It may not be the easiest topic to discuss with young kids, but experts suggest this step-by-step advice for laying the groundwork now.

mom comforting child with a hug
Photo: Illustration by Anne Bentley

Two years ago, when Amanda Beltran and her family lost their Labrador German shepherd, Casey, to cancer, her son, Joaquin, then 3, was distraught. "It happened so fast that there was no time to really prepare him," says the Puerto Rican mom, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. So Beltran did her best to create a safe space for Joaquin to talk, making it clear that he could ask her any questions as they popped up. And they did, from "When will Casey be back?" to "Why do we die?" "Discussing things so openly really helped him process Casey's death," Beltran says. "Now Joaquin has no trouble telling people he meets, 'I had a dog named Casey and he died. But that's OK because I remember him.' "

Making death a part of normal conversations, as Beltran did, is vital for children of all ages, experts say. But young ones especially benefit because the concept of life being over is confusing, and they usually don't have the vocabulary to fully express how they're feeling. Learn how you can gently bring up the topic with toddlers and preschoolers—as well as what to do when a loss strikes your family.

Prepare Now

Try to help your child understand death before it touches their life significantly, says Ashleigh Schopen, a Certified Child Life Specialist who provides support for the siblings of intensive-care patients at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Start by pointing out some of the cycles in nature. "When my daughter was a toddler, I talked about our houseplant that died," recalls Schopen. "I told her it was no longer living and what that meant: It couldn't take up water anymore or grow with sunlight. And I made sure to add that it couldn't come back again, because the permanence of death is something that young children have the hardest time understanding."

Other ways to bring up the topic are showing your kid the butterfly that died on the porch or fruit that was alive but now looks rotten, suggests Judith Simon Prager, Ph.D., a clinical homeopath and coauthor of Verbal First Aid. "Even a bubble that bursts can show how all things come to an end," she notes. You can also raise the subject during Día de los Muertos, if it comes up in a movie, or when death tangentially affects your family, as when a neighbor dies.

"The more you talk about death—and what it means—the less scared and confused your child may be when it happens to a family member," says Schopen. Also discuss the cycle of life—we are born, then we live our lives, and then eventually we die (and if you believe that there's a heaven or afterlife, discuss that too)—to help kids understand it's a natural part of living.

Share Sad News Directly

"Try to avoid euphemisms like, 'She's in a better place,' because they can be scary or confusing for young children," says Schopen. Instead, talk to your child in a familiar spot, where they have a favorite toy nearby to help them feel comfortable. Plan out what you want to say to them (and maybe even practice it on another adult first). Then, as they're playing, be honest and concrete, even if it might sound a little cold: "You could say, 'Abuelo died, and this makes me very sad. When people die, their body stops working and they can't eat, walk, or play anymore. And you won't be able to see them. "

If your child responds by asking whether the person's body can be fixed, say, "When a body stops working, it can never start again," suggests Jill Macfarlane, program director at The Sharing Place, a nonprofit in Salt Lake City that helps children cope with the death of a loved one. But it's also common for toddlers not to have any questions, so don't worry if your kid seems uninterested. In fact, your toddler may not cry, even if you do. "Young children don't attach the same level of emotion as adults because they don't fully grasp the concept of death," says psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. Keep in mind that your child may show different reactions over time, such as when the holidays roll around, so keep monitoring things and maintaining good communications.

What's more, you should also be ready for questions about whether you, your child, or another loved one will die soon (and if your child doesn't ask but seems worried about this, you might still choose to address it). Start by discussing the ways that people die; generally they're very very old, very very sick, they have a bad accident, or someone kills them. Make sure to add in the "very, very" when discussing death by illness or old age, so kids don't worry when they get a cold or you have a birthday. Then, discuss the steps you're taking to avoid these problems for your family, such as visiting the doctor regularly and driving safely. Don't make any promises that people won't die, but be realistically optimistic and say you plan on living as long as possible. And if you know someone who will die soon, discuss that it will be sad, and you'll get through it together.

Finally, make sure your kid knows it's not their fault. Preschoolers tend to think that the world revolves around them, so they may feel a misguided sense of blame. Reassure your child that it was nothing they did and that no one could have stopped the death from happening. "They may have thought something bad about their grandma, and now that she's dead, they're afraid they made it happen," says Barbara Coloroso, author of Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in Times of Loss, Grief, and Change. "Explain that there was nothing anyone did that made her go away, and we can't bring her back again."

Get Through the First Few Days

After you've lost someone you love, try to stick as close to your child's normal routine as possible. Routine is generally comforting for young children, so this may help ease some of the behavioral changes that are common in them, such as acting silly or hyper or regressing to old habits like thumb-sucking, says Macfarlane.

Expect your child to keep asking you what happened or when your relative or pet will be coming back. "Day after day, they might ask you the same questions," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Don't think that they're looking for deeper meaning, because they're not. They need you to answer the questions consistently, as painful as it is, because it will help them start to grasp the finality of death."

And remember, you don't need to hide your feelings from your child or pretend things are fine—but keep in mind that kids can get scared if they see a parent acting uncontrollably inconsolable. "If they see you cry, explain what you're feeling and why," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "You can also suggest how to respond. For instance, you could say, 'I'm feeling sad because I'm missing your grandma. I could use a hug!'"

During this time, you might find your child acting out scenarios about death, which is a healthy way to process their feelings. "Their play is like a book you can read to understand their thoughts," says Margret Nickels, Ph.D., director of the Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families. They may have some mistaken notions that you can clear up. "For example, if your child pretends that they're feeding their doll ice cream and then all of a sudden the doll gets sick and dies, you could step in and say, 'You know, your uncle's heart stopped working because his heart was sick, and doctors couldn't help him. It really wasn't because of anything he ate,' " says Dr. Nickels.

Handle the Funeral

"Whether or not a young child should go to a funeral is the number-one question parents ask me," says Schopen. Her response: yes, if a kid expresses interest in going, though it really depends on each individual child. Parents must also consider their child's personal needs and how the funeral will look; for example, if people might cry uncontrollably or there's an open casket, this may be too scary for some kids.

If your child does attend the funeral, prepare them for what it will be like, and whenever possible give them choices so they feel more in control. "In these unique times with many funeral and memorial services available remotely, you can think outside the box," Schopen notes. "Ask your child if they'd like to create something that can be shared virtually, such as a recording of themselves singing or saying a prayer." Also, designate a particular person who can provide an "escape" if the service gets too difficult; this person can take your child outside for a walk if needed. And you can always provide the alternative of having your own memorial for the person.

After the funeral, continue to help your kid remember your loved one. You can leave a photo album of them on the table so they can look at it with you when they're ready. Your child can even create their own memorial, which might involve drawing pictures of the person, making a scrapbook, or planting a tree. Even though the person is gone, their loved ones still carry them in their hearts and minds through love and memories, so this is a way that they keep "living on." The healing process takes time, but you'll get through it—together.

Don't Send the Wrong Message

These classic lines may seem like easy explanations, but kids are likely to misinterpret them.

"He Went To Sleep and Didn't Wake Up." Unless you want your child to attempt to stay awake for the rest of their life, avoid linking sleep and death.

"God Needed Abuela With Him." This belief may give you comfort, but kids don't have the cognitive ability to understand it. If you tell your child that God loved someone and wanted to take them up to heaven, they may start misbehaving because they're afraid that if they're too good, God will want to take them. Instead, say something like, "Abuela is with God now" or "Abuela is in heaven."

"Let's Not Cry About It." Just the opposite—you shouldn't stifle your emotions or your child's. When you grieve in front of your kid, you are modeling healthy behavior. Additionally, explain that any emotion your child has, including anger and sadness, is normal. People can have multiple emotions at once (like sadness about missing the person but happiness that their suffering is over). Discuss that grief is a process and sadness tends to lessen over time.

Parts of this article originally appeared in Parents Latina's October/November issue as "Dealing With Death."

Updated by Wanda Medina
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