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Explaining Death to a Child: How to Talk to Your Children About Death

Published: February 22, 2021

Drafting A Will

How do you explain the passing of a loved one or friend to a child?

When a child learns about the death of a parent, relative, or close friend, they may have questions or struggle with managing their grief. It's important to talk to children about death so they can process their emotions and deal with their feelings in a healthy manner.

Many adults fear explaining death to children due to their own feelings or fears. It's important to be honest and sincere about death, even if your family and friends usually avoid talking to kids about death and dying. Otherwise, children might assume that questions and conversations related to death are taboo topics they should steer clear of. 

Guidelines for Explaining the Realities of Death to Children

It's normal for adults to struggle or feel uncomfortable when explaining death to a child. They may feel like the child doesn't understand or the adult themselves might worry that they don't have the knowledge to help a child understand why people die.

Here are a few tips to follow when explaining death to a child. 

Keep Your Discussion Age-Appropriate

The level of detail you use when discussing death will depend on the age of the child and their maturity level. For example, when talking about death to a preschooler or younger children, it's reasonable to say that a loved one died with minimal explanation. Preschoolers have trouble understanding the permanence of death and are unlikely to understand a comprehensive biological explanation of the factors the lead to death.

However, when explaining death to children who are older or pre-teens, a more detailed explanation is appropriate. Understanding the physiological causes of someone's death is reassuring to some children who are worried that they or other loved ones will also die. 

Regardless of the child's age or current understanding of death, avoid saying that the person is "asleep" or "resting." This can be confusing for many kids, and they may worry that they will pass away when they go to sleep. 

Create a Comfortable Environment

When telling a child about the death of a loved one, try to make the environment as calm as possible. Remove any distractions and opt for an environment that the child is familiar with. Turn off any electronics and remove any phones or tablets, as these items can distract children when you're trying to explain death. 

Encourage the Child to Ask Questions

After you tell them the news of their family members or friend's death, see if the child has any questions. They may not have any immediate questions, or they might ask the same questions repeatedly.

Offer a clear explanation (when appropriate) and encourage your child to voice their questions and feelings. It's not uncommon for a child's questions about death to arise after you give them the news, such as after the visitation at a funeral home or after cremation services.

Or, your child may want to know what's going to happen to their loved one's physical body. You can tell them that a funeral home will prepare their loved one's body for burial or cremation. Again, alter the details of your explanation to the child's age and maturity level. 

Know That Kids React in Their Own Way

When explaining death to a child, a wide range of reactions are possible. Some children may seem unemotional or unfazed by the news, even if they've lost someone they adored; this is a defense mechanism that helps minimize the pain and fear associated with their loss.

Other kids may have an outburst similar to a tantrum. This is also normal and serves as an outlet for their emotions. Affirm and recognize the child's feelings and offer ways for them to express these strong emotions.

Some kids may like to draw a picture or write a letter to take the funeral home. This serves as a conduit for their grief and helps them say their final goodbyes. 

How to Help Children Grieve

There are a few things you can to do help a child cope with death. Overall, the goal is to provide a supportive environment that provides an outlet for your child's feelings and emotions. 

If you're going to live stream the funeral service or hold a memorial service, explain what will happen so your child will know what to expect. Funerals and cremations services can be overwhelming, especially if the child has never been to one.

Encourage them to participate in whatever way is comfortable for them. Some kids find that having a role, like choosing a poem or displaying photos at the funeral, aids the grieving process. 

When possible, bring up happy memories of your loved one. Talk about the deceased or show pictures to help your kids cope. This shows them that their loved one isn't forgotten, but that it's okay to continue living their life. 

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