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10 tips on talking to children about death

Losing a loved one is a difficult experience for anyone, but it can be particularly challenging for young children who may not fully understand what is happening. As caregivers, it's important to approach the conversation about death and dying with empathy, honesty, and compassion.

Here are some tips to help guide you through this challenging conversation:

  1. Use age-appropriate language: Children have limited vocabulary and may not understand complex or abstract concepts. Keep your language simple and straightforward, and avoid euphemisms that can be confusing or misleading. For example, saying "Grandma has gone to sleep" may give the impression that she will wake up soon. Instead, use clear and direct language, such as "Grandma has died, which means her body has stopped working and she will not be coming back."
  2. Be honest: Children can sense when something is wrong, and hiding the truth can cause more confusion and anxiety. Explain the situation in an honest but gentle manner, using language that is appropriate for their age and understanding. It's important to use clear and direct language. Children often benefit from hearing the same words multiple times, so don't be afraid to repeat yourself if needed.
  3. Listen and answer their questions: Children may have many questions about death and dying, and it's important to answer them as honestly as possible. Encourage them to express their feelings and concerns, and validate their emotions. Let them know that it's okay to feel sad, angry, confused, or scared, and that everyone copes with grief in their own way.
  4. Use concrete examples: Children understand the world through concrete examples, so it may be helpful to use real-life examples to explain death and dying. For example, you could explain that just as a plant or a flower dies, so too do people and animals. You could also explain that death is a natural part of life, and that all living things eventually die.
  5. Provide comfort: Not everything has to be spoken. Sometimes children, or anyone grieving, just need time to process and general comfort. Provide comfort and reassurance, and let them know that it's okay to feel sad or scared. Encourage them to express their emotions and validate their feelings. Let them know that they are not alone and that they have your support.
  6. Avoid over-explaining: While it's important to be honest and provide accurate information, it's also important to avoid over-explaining or giving too much information that can be overwhelming for young children. Keep the conversation simple and focused on the key points. If they seem overwhelmed, take a break or change the topic to something more positive.
  7. Use books and resources: There are many books and resources available that can help children understand death and dying in a gentle and age-appropriate way. Consider using these resources to supplement your conversation and help your child process their emotions. Some recommended books include The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, and  The Memory Box: A Book About Grief by Joanna Rowland.
  8. Be patient: Grieving is a process, and it takes time for children to understand and come to terms with death. Be patient with your child and let them express their emotions in their own time and way. Remember that children may not fully understand the permanence of death until they are around 5 or 6 years old, and may continue to have questions and concerns even after the initial conversation.
  9. Seek additional support if needed: If your child is having difficulty coping with grief or is experiencing intense emotions that are impacting their daily life, consider seeking additional support from a therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional. Grief can be a complex and challenging emotion to navigate, and it's important to have the necessary support and resources to help your child cope.
  10. Remember to take care of yourself: It's important to take care of yourself as well as your child during this difficult time. Grieving is a natural process, and it's okay to feel a range of emotions. Be sure to take time for yourself to process your own emotions and seek support from family and friends or a mental health professional if needed. When you are feeling calm and centered, you'll be better equipped to support your child through their own grieving process.

Conversations about death and dying are never easy, especially when it comes to young children. While it can be tempting to shield them from the harsh realities of death, honesty is crucial to help them understand what's happening and process their emotions. Listening to their questions and concerns, validating their feelings, and providing reassurance that they are not alone can go a long way in helping them cope with their grief. It's also important to remember that grieving is a process and can take time, so be patient with your child as they come to terms with the loss.

Remember to take care of yourself as well, so that you can be there to support your child through this challenging time. By following these tips, you can have a meaningful conversation with your child about death and dying, and help them through the grieving process.

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Breena Fain
Breena Fain

Breena is a writer, certified death doula, and co-founder at Addio based in San Francisco. She leads Addio's content efforts and helps families navigate their end-of-life plan. In her free time, you can find her at the piano, on the beach with her dog, eating her weight in sourdough bread, and volunteering at a local SF hospice facility. (She's also who runs all our social media accounts so be sure to say hello!)

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Take the quiz