Explaining the death of a loved one to a child can be intimidating. It may take a child years to fully understand the permanence of death and dying.

Tips for Explaining Death To A Child:

Be honest, gentle and open about death when talking to a child. Make sure that your children know they can talk about death or dying and their feelings as they arise.

Explain what death is in a very concrete way rather than referring to "going away," or "sleeping." As children are concrete, literal thinkers, euphemisms about death will be hard for children to understand.

Explain to your child that death is permanent.

Magical Thinking:

Children have trouble separating fact from chance events and may use a process called "magical thinking" to explain two unrelated events. (See below for a better explanation of magical thinking.)

How To Say Good-Bye:

Create a living memorial by planting a special flowerbed or a tree with your child. That way, your child can visit that spot and feel closer to the deceased.

Dedicate a special moment to your lost loved one. You and your child could eat a special meal, visit a special place, or sing a special song to remember your loved one.

Collect and preserve memories together with your child, adding notes, clothes and favorite things. Take turns telling or writing stories about your deceased loved one through these items. Be sure to hold onto these items for your child.

Plan a small memorial with your child to remember your loved one. A larger memorial may be hard for a small child, but a smaller, intimate one with close friends and family may help a child say goodbye.

Explaining Death To A Child 5 or 6 Years of Age.

  • At this age, the child still views the world in a very concrete manner.
  • If the loved one who has died was elderly or ill, try explaining to the child that their body was sick, and the doctors could not fix it.
  • If the death was a result of an accident or tragic event, explain what happened (how much detail you use is up to your judgment, but generally speaking, the simpler, the better). Explain to your child that the death was because the accident caused their body to stop working.
  • If the death was a young friend or classmate, a big concern about death for a child up to five or six years old is that they may get sick and die like their friend. This is a very valid fear and one that will need to be explained well: "Just because Suzy had cancer doesn't mean that you will get it, too."
  • You may need to explain that dying or death is what happens when the body can’t work.
  • By giving your young child only enough information to answer each specific question about the death of a loved one, you allow them to process it and come up with another question later. Too much information is more than a child can handle at that age.
  • This may be a good time to share your views on the afterlife, if you have any.
  • It’s hard for kids under age six to grasp the finality of death, so questions may come up down the road. This can be frustrating and heart-wrenching for you. Calmly reiterate that death means that they won’t be coming back, but that it’s okay to miss our loved ones very much.
  • Tell your child "it’s okay to be sad that they are gone, but that doesn’t mean we need to forget the good times." Perhaps reminisce with your child about a fun time or event that happened with this person.

Explaining Death To Children Between The Ages Of 6-10.

  • Kids between six and ten years old can understand the finality of death.
  • Remain clear, honest and factual when talking about death to a child this age.
  • Kids have deeper questions about death and may or may not be ready for the full answer. You will have to pick and choose what your child will be ready to hear and understand.
  • Kids may believe that if they make a wish, or pray, then so-and-so won’t die. This is called "Magical Thinking."
  • Make it clear that eventually, everything dies, including Fluffy and Doggy and little pet Fishy.

 

Things You Can Do To Help A Child Through Grief and Grieving

  • Be open and honest, allow questions.
  • Find a grief support group.
  • Be open to the idea of counseling for your child, if you think they will benefit from it.
  • Speak with your religious leader (if you have one). They may be able to help you explain what your religion believes about the after-life. Additionally, they may be willing to sit down with you and your child to help explain death.
  • Reminisce with your child about their loved one. Keeping the happy memories alive can ease the pain of loss over time.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Five Stages of Grief Resources

Grief Resources

Feelings Resources

How to Cope with a Suicide

How to Help Someone Who is Grieving

Loss Resources

Grandparent Loss

Parent Loss

Additional Resources

KidsHealth.Org: A brief look at what you might expect each age group to handle, or ask questions about.

Hospice.Net : Another source for tips on how to explain death, what to expect from your grieving child, and they even offer bereavement camps for children aged 7-17. They also have a special section for deaths caused by cancers.

National Alliance for Grieving Children: Full of useful information, and they also have a tool to help you locate support groups in your area