How To Discuss Death With Your Children

Posted: 15/12/2017

Losing a loved one marks the beginning of an often long and painful grieving process. Confusion may be added to the mix too, particularly if you have a child who may not understand the concept of death, even more so if this is the first time they have experienced death in any way.

It can be extremely difficult as a parent to know how to approach the topic of death with young children. Especially when you consider the fact that speaking about passing away remains much of a taboo subject in even adult conversation, making many of us feel very uncomfortable at the mere thought of the topic. In fact, in a survey in 2016  by the Dying Matters Coalition, the report shows that only a third of adults have let someone know their funeral wishes, for example.

Taking into account these considerations and difficulties you may face when approaching the subject of death with your child, we have put together a guide that may help you to speak to a child who has lost a loved one.

Putting emotions into words

Children will deal with death in different ways, with this depending upon their age and how close they were to the deceased. One of the most important things parents should do when talking about death with their children is encouraging them to show their emotions in order to help them grieve. It is also important to explain that they may well feel sad for weeks or months following the loss and that this is ok. After all, children are not born with an innate understanding that death is irreversible or that it has a cause. They may also feel confused by feeling a range of emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, shock or denial.

Talking about your feelings can also be a positive thing to do, albeit doing so in a restrained way so as to not offload onto your children. Saying something like ‘I feel sad that Grandad has passed too, it is ok to feel like that’ can help get this message across and will be easy for children to understand.

Provide comfort


Engaging in fun activities with your child after having a difficult conversation about death can be a good way to try and move forward.

Whilst it is incredibly important in the grieving process to talk about sad feelings that your children may have, it just as important to avoid dwelling too much. After discussing the situation with your child, try to move onto an activity or topic to make them feel a little happier, such as engaging in:

  • Cooking
  • Baking
  • Art
  • Games
  • Reading a story
  • Poetry

Avoid certain confusing phrases

When approaching the topic, Barnados Child Bereavement Service recommends avoiding certain phrases such as ‘lost’  ‘gone to a better place’ or ‘gone to sleep’ when talking about the deceased. This is because it can lead to unnecessary anxiety or be confusing for very young children. It is better to try and refer to the deceased as ‘dead’ or use ‘death’ whenever possible to make it clear the irreversibility of the situation, as tough as that is.

Try to link to previous experiences


Explaining death through a child’s previous experiences of death such as of a beloved pet may help them to understand the gravity of the situation.


What we mean by this is that, if it is possible, try to link any previous experiences that the child may have had of death (such as a plant or a pet). This can help them understand the irreversible and universal nature of death, as opposed to those seen in computer games which can sometimes portray death as something temporary.

One of the fundamental points to remember when explaining death to a child is that it is important to give them clear, honest information on a regular basis, but put forward to them in a way they can understand.

Give your child a role


Giving your child a role for the memorial service by doing a painting or poem could help them to grieve.

Dealing with the loss of a loved one can lead to a host of complex feelings that many children have not otherwise experienced. A way that can help them to process these emotions could be through giving them a role to do at a memorial service, for example, this may be to pick a song to be played, write a poem, or do a picture. However, children should be allowed to decide if they want to participate or not.

Give your child time to process the loss

As with adults, the grieving process is something that takes time. Therefore, it is important to regularly have conversations with your child about how they are feeling and doing. This is particularly important given that children will often grieve in a more sporadic way than adults, moving from being sad one moment to happy and bouncy the next. Sometimes, adults can mistake this for the child as coping better with the death of a loved one much better than they are in reality. It should be noted that children will often dip in and out of grief, and show a range of different emotions whilst trying to cope with the death of a loved one. Children may seem accepting of a bereavement, and then may become extremely distressed later onThis may be confusing for adults, but it is normal and should be considered as such.

Remove blame

Children often have a way of feeling guilt or blame for when bad things happen. As a result, it is essential that children are reassured by their parents that isn’t the case, and that it is reinforced that nothing we think or say can cause someone’s death, and it was certainly never their fault.

If you feel at any point that your child is particularly struggling with grief, it may be worth consulting your local GP to see if they may require counselling. You can also find a registered counsellor yourself by checking the Counselling Directory, or professional support through Relate.