How to Talk to Children about Death

A couple of years ago, when Ilay was about five, or maybe six, he met the concept of death for the first time. I can’t remember where or how, but he was terrified. The thought kept him awake in the evening and even woke him up at night. He feared us dying, and then he feared himself dying, and it was an ongoing conversation at our house for quite some time. 

There are two possible catalysts to a conversation about death with our children; the first one is random, such as the conversations we had with Ilay, and the other one is in case a loved one has passed away. 

No matter what route you take here, remember that every mention of death is a mention of love, since we won’t fear to lose what we don’t love, and we can always move the discussion in this direction.

“I am here with you right now; we are together, and it feels wonderful, right?” 

How to Talk to Children about the Concept of Death 

When we have random conversations about death with our children, it is essential to first neutralize our fear of death, if we fear it. Since we are the models of behaviors and feelings to our children, we wouldn’t want to add more fear where fear already exists, right? 

Death is mainly scary because it is unknown; I’m sure you can relate to that, too. It introduces children to the possibility of being alone, not being protected, not knowing how to handle life, and essentially, not surviving themselves. At its core, the thought of death undermines children’s need for safety. It’s a normal, existential, and biological fear that most children will experience around their preschool years. 

How to Talk to Children about Death when a Loved One Has Died

This conversation is different because the child experiences a lack of friends, parents, and caregivers. In this case, we are not only talking about death, but we are also going through feelings of grief, missing, pain, uncertainty, loneliness, and many others, and it’s important to allow all feelings and to talk about everything openly and without judgment. 

Let’s break it down by age: 

How to Talk to Infants and Toddlers (0-2 years) About Death 

Infants and even toddlers have a minimal understanding of death. They might notice the absence of a person but cannot comprehend the permanence or the reasons behind it.

They are sensitive to the emotional atmosphere and may react to the grief and sadness of caregivers. Maintaining a calm and reassuring routine is crucial while offering an abundance of physical touch and closeness and having the patience for repetitive questions. 

When toddlers ask the same question repeatedly, it is a sign that they still need to process the answers they’ve been given. Try to alternate words and explanations and use examples from their imaginative worlds.  

Child: “Is Fishy the fish dead?”

“Fishy died; his body stopped working, but we will always remember him and our great times together!”

“Fishy won’t return, but you could tell me what you loved most about him.

“I miss Fishy, too! Shall we make a nice drawing together to remember him?” 

How to Talk to Preschoolers (3-5 years) About Death

Preschoolers are beginning to grasp the concept of death but may still struggle with its permanence since the concept of time is still missing. However, their brain’s natural creativity, as well as the desire to make sense of the world, may lead to various thoughts, all aimed at understanding the not-understandable.  

Preschoolers often engage in magical thinking, believing that their thoughts or actions might have caused the death. Since guilt is a part of our survival instinct, reassuring them that they are not responsible in any way is essential.

They have a more concrete understanding that death means the person is no longer alive. However, the finality and irreversibility might be challenging for them to grasp fully.

Children at this age may anthropomorphize death, imagining it as a person or entity, creating a mental image that is scary and uncomfortable. This is the perfect age to provide clear and simple explanations to help dispel misconceptions.

Child: “Is Grandpa going to wake up?”

“I know you miss Grandpa. But, sweetheart, when someone dies, their body stops working, and they can’t wake up. We can remember Grandpa and the love he shared with us.”

Children at this age may develop their own explanations to make sense of their inner world. They might say things like “Grandpa had gone to the stars” or “To the sky”, and while not entirely truthful, it is a good idea to go with the flow here if this kind of thought brings them comfort. We will all know the truth eventually.  

Again, no matter what route you take here, remember that every mention of death is a mention of love, and we can always move the discussion in this direction. “I am here with you right now; we are together, and it feels wonderful, right?” 

How to Talk to School-Age Children (6-12 years) About Death

School-age children have a more developed understanding of death, but the emotional impact can vary widely. They start to understand the concept of irreversibility of death, realizing that once a person has died, they cannot come back.

Emotional responses can range from sadness and confusion to curiosity and, in some cases, fear. Open discussions and addressing their specific questions are crucial.

Children in this age group might start developing a sense of spiritual or cultural beliefs about what happens after death. Exploring these beliefs with them can provide comfort. They will start questioning the specifics of how and why death takes place. 

Child: “Why did my pet rabbit die?”

“Like all living things, your rabbit’s body stopped working because he was old and tired,” for example. “Are you feeling sad?”

“When someone dies, we will not be able to see them or visit them, but their memory is always with us, in our hearts. Would you like to look at pictures together?” 

Always finish your statements with a question mark, so that your child can feel your empathy

How to Talk to Teenagers (13-18 years) About Death

Teenagers have a more mature understanding of death, and the emotional impact of death is profound. Adolescents can engage in more abstract thinking, contemplating existential questions and exploring the philosophical aspects of life and death.

They may question and refine their personal beliefs about death, influenced by their cultural, religious, or philosophical perspectives.

The emotional intensity of grief can be significant during adolescence, as they grapple with not only the loss itself but also questions about their own mortality and the meaning of life.

Adolescents may seek support from peers, mentors, or professionals. Encouraging open communication and providing resources for coping can be beneficial since we can only control the inputs they receive from us.

Teenager: “I don’t understand why people have to die.”

“It’s a profound question, and people have different beliefs about it. Some see it as a part of the natural cycle of life. What are your thoughts or questions about it?”

Allowing teenagers to explore their thoughts freely, without imposing our thoughts upon them, is so important. Our primary role, as their parents, is to lead them to a place of understanding that comes from within, even if that place might be different than our understanding of death. 

Death is a sensitive topic, and it’s a conversation that we will all have with our children at some point in life, and it’s best to be prepared. 

I hope this article helped you, and I invite you to join my online community where we can talk further. 

Talking to children about death is triggering for many parents, and you can't let this conversation surprise you, because the proper response is important. Here's how to talk to children about death.
Talking to preschoolers about death is triggering for many parents, and you can't let this conversation surprise you, because the proper response is important. Here's how to talk to preschoolers about death.
Talking to teenagers about death is triggering for many parents, and you can't let this conversation surprise you, because the proper response is important. Here's how to talk to teenagers about death.
Talking to toddlers about death is triggering for many parents, yet this conversation is bound to happen. Here's how you talk to kids about death in every age.

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