Losing a loved one is never easy. For a child, it can be more confusing and emotionally challenging than ever. As a caregiver, you might not know where to start when it comes to talking to your children about death. And that’s okay.
If you’re looking for advice on how to talk to kids about death, we’re here for you. Parenting with confidence can be difficult when your family has experienced a loss. But with the right communication tools, you can have a conversation with your child on the topic of death and dying to confidently answer their questions and provide them comfort. Here are a few ways you can get started.
How Old Should a Child Be Before You Talk to Them About Death?
Normally around age 2 or 3, preschoolers reach an inquisitive phase of life, often asking why or how things happen. This typically continues until age 4 or 5.1 Whether they’ve experienced a death in the family or they’re curious about death in general, one of those questions might be about why people die.
Although it may feel like they’re not ready to hear those answers, it’s helpful to speak honestly when talking to young kids about death. When a child has a basic understanding of death, they’re likely to cope with the sadness of loss in a more healthy way as they grow.2
How To Talk to a Child About Death
There’s no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to discussing a sensitive subject like death with a child. Talking about it can be challenging for adults because our comfort level tells us to avoid difficult conversation topics if we don’t have all of the right answers. 3However, feel empowered to tackle the subject around children and grief directly if your child asks you a question about death or if there’s been a significant loss in the family.
When it’s time to discuss the topic, consider the following ways to express ideas they can grasp and make sense of:4
- Use simple sentences – Formulate answers that your child can comprehend by keeping your responses simple and using vocabulary they understand.3
- Be honest – Rather than sugar-coating your words, be as honest as possible. If you’re telling them that their pet has died, try to avoid vague answers like “they’re no longer with us” or “they passed away.” Most children don’t understand euphemisms, so the truth is much easier for them to comprehend. Keep it honest and simple, saying something like, “The doctors tried to help Spot, but he died. That means his body doesn’t work anymore.”5
- Respond concretely – Instead of giving generalities, try to use concrete information when explaining death. For instance, if your younger child asks why their aunt died, try not to give a broad explanation like, “She was sick and couldn’t get better.” This may cause anxiety for your little one the next time you (or they) catch a cold.6 Instead, you can answer your child’s question with a concrete response like, “She had a sickness called Leukemia and the medicine couldn’t help her get better.”
How To Talk About the Death of a Loved One
Talking about death, in general, can be challenging—and that only increases when you’re talking to your younger child about the death of a loved one. In addition to keeping your explanation simple, honest, and concrete, here are a few other tips to guide you through the conversation and grieving process when explaining the death of a loved one:7
- Talk about their (and your) feelings – To help your child through the grieving process, you can read books related to death and loss, like Sprite Offers Comfort. It can help children understand that although their loved ones are gone, they’ll live forever in their hearts. It’s an excellent tool that can be both comforting and leave room for open-ended conversations about how they feel.
- Provide additional support if needed – If your child is working through recurring nightmares related to death, changes in mood or behavior, withdrawal from friends, or a lack of interest in their usual activities,8 consider offering extra support in the form of counseling. Counseling can help by validating their feelings, letting them speak about their emotions in a safe environment, and helping them process complex feelings associated with death.8
- Offer extended comfort – Try to take into account that providing comfort extends past the first few months of a loved one’s death—especially when a child’s parent has died. Many children who’ve experienced the death of a parent say it took them six or more years to fully move forward. 57% of children felt like support from family and friends dwindled after the first few months, even though they still needed a shoulder to lean on.9
Help Your Child Cope with Grief and Loss with Slumberkins
Although the topic may feel challenging to discuss, death is a relevant topic in many kids’ lives that is helpful or necessary to talk about. Creating a safe and open communication space can help a child’s understanding of grief and make them feel supported throughout such a difficult process. Furthermore, trying out different grief activities for kids can be a healthy and effective way to help children learn how to process loss.
After collaborating with The Dougy Center for Grieving Families and Children, Slumberkins has added a new friend, Sprite, to our growing collection of snuggly and supportive kins. With the help of Sprite and their accompanying board books, you can help your child process grief, cope with loss, and communicate their big feelings about this delicate subject.
- "Why Do Toddlers Ask Why?" Rise and Shine. https://riseandshine.childrensnational.org/why-do-toddlers-ask-why/
- Schonfeld, David. "How Early Childhood Educators Can Explain Death to Children." NAEYC. Spring 2021. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/spring2021/explaining-death
- "How to Talk to Kids About Death." Child Development Info. https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/how-to-be-a-parent/communication/talk-to-kids-death
- Kamentz, Anya et al. "Be Honest And Concrete: Tips For Talking To Kids About Death." NPR. 28 May, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2019/04/24/716702066/death-talking-with-kids-about-the-end
- Mendham, Catherine. "How to Talk to Your Preschooler About Death." Baby Centre. April 2022 https://www.babycentre.co.uk/a1021918/how-to-talk-to-your-preschooler-about-death
- "Sprite: A collaboration between The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families + Slumberkins." Slumberkins. https://slumberkins.com/blogs/slumberkins-blog/sprite-a-collaboration-between-the-dougy-center-for-grieving-children-families-slumberkins
- "When a Loved One Dies: How to Help Your Child." Kids Health. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/death.html
- Morin, Amy. "Grief Counseling for Children." Very Well Family. Updated 9 January, 2023. https://www.verywellfamily.com/grief-counseling-for-children-4173493
- "Facts and Stats." Children’s Grief Awareness Day. https://www.childrensgriefawarenessday.org/cgad2/pdf/griefstatistics.pdf