Learning how to explain death to a child can help prevent challenges related to traumatic grief, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and functional impairment.
Many children know death exists. They’ve likely seen it in cartoons, heard about it in stories, or have been told about death through the experience of a friend.
Knowing death exists and understanding what it means, however, can be two different things. Children may not realize death is permanent, especially when cartoon characters reappear after death, happy and unharmed.
Even when a child realizes death is forever, they might not be able to fully comprehend all the emotions and feelings that come from experiencing loss — even when it happens to them.
Death can involve more than loss. It can involve feelings of fear and uncertainty, especially when it happens unexpectedly.
Teach about life to help understand death
Shavaun McGinty, a licensed professional counselor and certified grief therapist in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, says there are four basic concepts important for understanding and coping with death:
- Death is irreversible.
- All life functions end completely at the time of death.
- Everything alive eventually dies.
- There are physical causes of death.
“Most children understand these concepts by age 5 to 7,” she says. “But even children who are much younger can be helped to understand these concepts.”
Helping children understand and identify life functions like eating, breathing, and sleeping can be one way to introduce them to the concepts involved with death.
McGinty indicates an understanding of life can help children know death wasn’t due to something they did or failed to do. It can help them know a loved one isn’t suffering in death or experiencing pain, sadness, hunger, or thirst.
Be honest about permanence
In an attempt to soften the sadness of death, it can be tempting to tell young children that someone who has died is just sleeping.
Heather Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker in Blackwood, New Jersey, says the finality of death can be a complex message to deliver, but avoiding that topic can cause confusion.
Wilson explains “the alternative of the child waiting on something that isn’t coming can be devastating.”
Children might develop fear responses as a result of hiding death. They may wonder, for example, if they will also go to sleep one night and not wake up.
A 2022 study noted children want caregivers to be truthful regarding death.
Allow children to honor death in their own way
It’s common and natural for children not to want to attend a funeral. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends not forcing children to go if they don’t want to.
Not attending the funeral doesn’t mean stifling grief expression. Caregivers can help children remember and honor a loved one in other ways, such as through:
- private candle lighting
- making a scrapbook
- drawing or writing
- sharing photographs and family memories
- planting a tree, flower, or other plant
Focus on answering questions
“If the concept of death brings about a lot of internal philosophical questions in adults, imagine how confusing it is for children,” says Wilson.
Rather than trying to explain death and all the different beliefs that surround it, focusing on answering a child’s specific questions can help them from feeling overwhelmed.
Wilson recommends using clear, simple language and incorporating analogies to movies, stories, or media your child is familiar with.
McGinty points out that feelings associated with grief can be new to children. She recommends modeling your own feelings so children can start to understand theirs.
She gives the example of saying, “I feel sad that Grandma died. I loved her so much, and I know she loved us too.”
Stick to a routine
While it can be important to allow children to express their grief in their own way, maintaining your daily routine can help children learn that death is a part of life, and life continues on.
Speak with a professional
It may not be easy as a caregiver to navigate personal emotions while trying to help a child understand death.
You don’t have to shoulder this burden on your own. According to a
Many schools offer resources or can connect you with certified grief counselors in your area.
Death can be confusing, even for adults. For children, the capacity to understand death can be limited by age and development. Your culture and religious beliefs may also influence how you explain death to your child.
Tendency to be egocentric
David Tzall, a licensed clinical psychologist in Brooklyn, New York, explains that children are naturally egocentric. “They tend to make issues outside of themselves about themselves,” he says.
This can mean children take death as a reflection of something they did, didn’t do, or said, and experience feelings of guilt or shame.
Keeping death significant without being scary
“Trying to explain death without frightening the child or giving them too much information is difficult,” says Wilson.
She says it can be challenging for caregivers to simplify death without making it seem insignificant.
The finality of death
The concept of death permanence can be difficult to convey to children, especially in the presence of well-intentioned statements, like “They’re watching over you from heaven.”
McGinty explains statements and symbolism intended for comfort can confuse children by allowing them to think loved ones experience death the same way they experience life: emotionally and with physical wants and needs.
Understanding how children grieve
Understanding the differences and possible stages of grief between children and adults can also help you when learning how to explain death to a child.
Grief in children can appear as:
- poor school performance
- social withdrawal
- sleep disturbances (e.g., nightmares, bedwetting, insomnia)
- volatile emotions
- fear of being alone
- appetite changes
- acting younger than their age
- imitating or speaking frequently about the lost loved one
- saying they see or can speak to the deceased
Wilson says grief can look differently based on age group, too.
“For example, young children might express their grief through regression, aggressive behavior, or clinging to loved ones. Teens may also experience a change in moods and might become apathetic,” she explains.
In some children, grief can contribute to long-term mental health challenges.
A 2018 study found that children experiencing the death of a parent had higher rates of depression in the years following death, as well as higher rates of PTSD overall, than children with living parents.
How to explain death to a child can vary depending on their age, development status, and current concepts of death.
Being honest, clear, and answering questions simply can help keep children from becoming confused about what death means.
A certified grief counselor or other professional support system can help ease the burden of explaining death to a child as you cope with your own emotions and grief.