Deep Breaths: Here’s How to Explain Death to a Child

Have you ever noticed how small children have no real concept of time? We’ve taken to explaining that our car ride will be “three songs long” or that we have to leave the house after “one Daniel Tiger episode” instead of saying “15 or 20 minutes.” 

Imagine then, their difficulty grappling with the finality of death—what child psychologist Tovah Klein calls “the ultimate separation”—whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a community member, a family pet or even a famous historical figure. (Note to past self: As you pass Ford’s Theater on your trip to D.C., you may think it’s a fabulous idea to tell your preschoolers all about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not.)

Then there are the feelings surrounding loss and its aftermath: grief, mourning and acceptance. Here, advice from Klein and other experts on how to make the most difficult of subjects a bit easier for little ones to live with.

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Read them books about it
If your children have experienced a loss or are simply curious about the topic, Klein recommends The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, the story of a boy who’s asked to list all the things he loved about his cat who passed away. It’s a beautiful lesson in letting go. A clergy-person and mom we consulted also recommends Lifetimes, which puts death in the context of all living things, and shows its inevitability is only natural.

Be open to their questions
“Death is the ultimate separation and young children are at the start of separation,” notes Klein. “So by four or five they can get very interested in death and dying and maybe even worried about losing a parent. They can ask very pointed questions about who will die, when and what it is like. Some children will worry, but many simply want to know answers, and the main answer they want to know is that their parents are not going to die anytime soon.” If a grandparent or other elderly person has died, Klein advises telling children: “Grandpa was very, very, very old and he had a sickness that you get at that age." Then differentiate: "Mommy and Daddy are only a tiny bit old and we are very healthy." Children need reassurance that their parents will be here to care for them.

mother embracing her son
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Be honest in your responses
“Because death is a very abstract concept, children have a hard time grasping the finality of it,” says Klein. “Adults do too.” The words “Grandpa died” will be difficult to say. But say them you must. “Euphemisms, such as ‘He passed away,’ have no meaning to children,” explains Klein. Also, be careful about telling them the person or animal “went to sleep” as kids may develop anxiety around going to sleep themselves, for fear they’ll never wake up again. Instead, give it to them straight. “This means we can't see him anymore, he is no longer here, he cannot come back.” Research shows using realistic words helps the grieving process, according to Psychology Today. Honesty is also the best policy when it comes to your own emotions. “It is OK show your feelings at times of loss,” says Klein. “Children learn about negative emotions in their most trusted relationships. They may get scared seeing a parent upset; after all, Mommy and Daddy are their rock and take care of them. Assure them that you are OK, and that you will still take care of them and be their Mommy/Daddy, just like always, even if you are sad.” That said, there’s a difference between lying and omitting. You do not have to provide kids with details of what happens to one’s body post-mortem, for example. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. It’s also wise to inform your child’s other caretakers and school about what’s going on, to ensure support is in place.

Expect the unexpected
If you’ve lost a loved one, your child may seem absolutely fine and then experience a sudden bout of grief. Their reactions—including anger, confusion and silence—may catch you off guard. Be prepared for this. “Children's feelings can be fleeting and arise at unexpected times,” says Klein. “This is normal for young children. Knowing that it is OK to have hard feelings, and that you will help them, is what matters.” Notes psychologist Deborah Serani, “It’s also common for children to seem unaffected by the loss. There is no right way to grieve.”

daughter and dad reminiscing
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Reminiscing can be helpful
It will be tempting to avoid the topic or to stop mentioning the loved one’s name. But, contrary to our instincts to push unhappiness away (and truly, what is more upsetting than seeing our children in pain?), looking at photos and videos of the departed can be comforting for everyone. Per research, nostalgia can even aid in the healing process. Parents can explain, “‘We can't see Grandpa anymore because he died. But we can think about him, and look at photos and remember some of the fun things we did with him,’” says Klein. Writing a letter—or keeping a grief journal full of them—to the person or pet can also foster connection and be cathartic. More useful advice from Serani: “Don't think that death puts a ban on laughter. Laughter is a great healing tool. Being able to laugh about memories or moments with your loved one signals just how important their presence was in your life.”

Let kids know they’re not responsible
Naturally self-focused, “Children need reassurance that nothing they did caused the death,” says Klein, adding that in general: “Children tend to blame themselves when bad things happen.” Explain to kids that it’s not their fault the loved one died. In fact, it’s no one’s fault. The same applies to your grief. Tell your kids you miss the person who is gone, but it is not their fault you are sad.

Stick to your routines
School, meals, bedtimes—try to keep kids’ schedules consistent. Death is a major disruptor with the potential for hospital visits, out-of-town guests, ceremonial events and funerals. Routines “help children feel organized and grounded,” says Klein.