Why and How Should We Explain Death to Our Children?

Death is part of life, and at some point in life we all experience loss. Sometimes it is an unexpected, sudden loss. Sometimes it happens too soon. Sometimes we are lucky to be able to say our goodbyes; maybe even come to terms with the loss. Whether we like it or not, death is very much present in life. We cannot avoid or conceal it. Therefore, talking about death and loss with our children is important.

Young children do not understand death the same way adults do. They do not understand the eternity of death, or what “forever” means. They don’t understand metaphors, nor are they able to grasp the abstract idea of death. Young children understand the world in a concrete, tangible way. They understand things that they have experienced.

Adults often associate death with pain and grief, and our struggle to cope with these feelings sometimes leads us to try to conceal the painful reality from our children, to protect them from the pain, the fear and the grief that we are experiencing ourselves.

Yet children typically know when something is wrong, that “something” is happening, even when they don’t quite understand what that “something” is. Sharing the information with our children, as painful as it may be, teaches them that they can trust us. And we can teach them how to cope.

So how does one explain what death is to a young child?
How to explain the death of a loved one?

Below you will find a few tips that will help you to discuss this painful topic with children:

What is death?
To be dead means that someone’s vital organs stopped working and their body has given out. At a young age, children understand that things break or that their toy is not working anymore because its batteries run out. This is how death should be explained to them. You can say people’s hearts, unlike batteries, cannot be replaced, although we would very much like them to.

What does forever mean?
When someone dies, they are gone. That means we can’t see or touch them anymore. We can only think, remember and feel them in our heart. Some children struggle to understand the finality of death.

By the age of 6, children define time by linking it to concrete events, like a birthday or a holiday. They understand yesterday, today and tomorrow, but still lack the ability to grasp the concept of “forever”. They may keep asking when the person will be coming back, and therefore, the answer to this question must be clear. “They won’t be coming back. We cannot see them anymore. We can only see them and feel them in our minds and hearts”.

It is ok to cry when answering your children’s questions. You are allowed to be sad. Sharing your feelings of sadness with your children will allow them to do that, too. You can explain that you cry because you are sad. Explain that it is ok to be sad. You can share that when someone dies, you are sad because you miss that person very much.

You may say that being sad is our heart’s way of telling us how much we love a person and how much fun we have had with that person. Even though we won’t see them anymore, our hearts hold all our memories and love for that person. We will always have that to comfort us.

Some children may feel afraid when they see their parents cry or express sadness. They might fear that their parents are not going to be happy anymore. They may ask if they have to be sad, too. You can tell them that it is okay to be sad, and that it is ok not to be sad, too.

It is very important to acknowledge and talk about intertwined sadness and joy and it is important to understand that young children do not experience grief like adults: they can cry for a moment and in the next moment they will go on to play. It does not mean they are not feeling pain or grief. It is important to understand that children can experience a full spectrum of emotions within minutes of each other. This emotional duality is legitimate and even healthy.

Your children may ask if they are, or you are, going to die, too. One possible answer is that everyone dies in the end, but only when we become very old, or very, very sick. It is important to emphasize that not every time that someone is sick do they die.

When death is sudden, violent or portrayed in the news, it can evoke additional feelings of worry, anxiety and fear among adults and children alike. We may want to shield our children from the troubling reality, but in this day and age of information and technology, that is difficult. In situations like these, consider initiating the discussion at home and trying to understand what your children already know, by asking if or what they have heard about the upsetting event. Follow their lead and answer only what they are asking, without adding unnecessarily to the account.

When discussing death and tragedy with children, remember that talking to our children about what is happening, and helping them make sense of what they hear, see and feel is the best way to support them.

You may express your own worry and sadness about what happened, and then share with your children what makes you feel better, as well as ask your children what can help them feel better.

Remember that different children may have different reactions to loss, and their age also affects how they respond. If a child continues to struggle, consult your doctor, or a child therapist for additional guidance.

Ruthie Bashan, LSW
JFS Clinician, Children’s Mental Health Services.