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How to talk with your kids about the “D” word

Mom hugging daughter

It’s the conversation no parent wants to have with their kids – the conversation about death.

Death makes us uncomfortable and it can be hard to talk about, especially the first time your child brings it up out of the blue. Your initial gut reaction may be to change the subject quickly or make a general statement that your child doesn’t need to worry about it, because as parents our instinct is to protect our children from the tough things in life. Unfortunately, death is something every child is going to encounter, whether it’s the loss of a pet, a loved one or a death they’ve seen on TV.

At some point, your child will ask questions. They’ll want to know if they’re going to die, if you will die and what happens after death. It’s their way of saying they’re ready to learn and it’s our job as parents to help prepare them to cope with death. So, where do you even begin?

Use the words “dying” and “death”

The most important thing is to use simple, real words. Avoid using euphemisms, which only confuses the child. If you describe death as somebody being asleep – guess what – your child will be afraid to go to sleep. If you say the person is going away for a long time, the child will be scared each time you leave for work. It's really important to use the words “death” or “died.” Those are the concrete words associated with this specific experience and it's important for kids to put the two together. Avoid using the word “pass away,” because kids just don’t know what that means.

It’s OK to feel emotion

We have this belief as parents that we have to be strong for our children and somebody, somewhere along the way said being strong means you don't cry. That’s simply not true. Kids need to know that it’s normal to feel sad or to cry, and that grief hurts. So don’t shy away from emotion or shedding a few tears when talking about death.

It’s also OK to let your child know if it makes you uncomfortable. You can say “it’s really hard for me to talk about grandpa dying because it makes me feel sad” or “sometimes I'm uncomfortable about talking about this, but I still want to because it's important.” Modeling how we talk about feelings is just as important as the actual topic of discussion.

Help your child identify the feelings they’re having, especially if this is the first death they’ve experienced or if it’s a different death than they’ve experienced before. Your child may express a range of emotions from sadness, anger, disappointment and numbness.

Work with your child to develop a way to remember the person that has died.  It may be helpful to find a routine you can do together with your child, which may include looking at pictures, telling stories or going for a walk in a place that reminds you of that person. Kids will start to realize it’s OK to be happy about the memories, but feel sad that the person is no longer around.

Be open and honest

It's hard when kids ask questions because death is such an uncertainty. You may not be able to answer all their questions and that’s alright – just be transparent about that. I’ve literally said to my daughter, “I need a minute. I want to think about how I’m going to answer.” It’s fine to take a breath and not react to the question immediately. 

Let your child know there’s no reason to think something bad is going to happen to them. Explain that grandpa or grandma died because they're getting older and their body was tired. Or the thing that happened to another child doesn't usually happen. Reassure your child, but avoid making promises that are out of your control. Saying “I’m here to protect you” is reassuring but honest, while “I would never let anything bad happen” may not always be in your control.

Help your child prepare

Because children do not know what happens in death, they may have some anxiety about the future.  It is important to help them feel more comfortable in the things that are predictable and controllable.

If your child would like to go to the funeral (which should always be a choice) tell your child what to expect. Discuss if the casket will be opened or closed. Explain that music will be played and people will get up to speak. Let the child know that some people will be crying and sad. If you're going to be at a funeral where the kids are expected to talk to people, help them to know what to say. That can be as simple as “thank you for thinking of our family” or “I’m sorry for your loss” depending on the situation.

Give your child a role. Maybe they are helping watch younger children as the family gathers, or look for readings for the funeral. Their role may be as simple as finding a specific item or picture. When children have a task to complete, they feel helpful and in control which may ease some of their anxiety.

Don’t have expectations

Everybody reacts to death differently. Just because you’re expressing emotions doesn’t mean your child is going to express grief the same way. Sometimes children don’t cry or will cry at a time that seems completely strange to you.

The very first death a child experiences tends to have a big impact on them. It may not be the most significant death or the person closest to them, but it was the first time the child learned about death and it makes an imprint on their brain.

It's really important for parents to understand that wherever a child is developmentally is how the child is going to react and process grief.

Toddlers may struggle with the concept that a person is gone forever and may regress in behavior. You may find that your child is fearful and wants to start sleeping with you again even if you’re past that stage.

For most kids, 5-7 years of age is when they realize that death is permanent and they will likely have a lot of questions. As they get older, they realize death is a tough topic to talk about and may be less likely to talk about it. However, at the younger ages, they do not hold back their questions in the same way.

Teenagers may focus (like they do with everything) on how it will impact them directly. They will need to know what their role is and what life is going to look like for them. It's hard because we want teenagers to be empathic, but that's tough for them during a difficult, emotional time. Many times they rely on their peers to cope, because that’s where they are developmentally.

Know when to seek help

In general, if it’s been a few weeks since the death and your child can’t go to school, separate from you, has trouble with homework, doesn’t want to do their normal activities – basically anything that really interferes with their daily life – it’s time to talk about it. Grief counseling is a wonderful way to allow kids to express their emotions, whether they talk to a school counselor, a psychologist or somebody within their church or spiritual community.

Bottom line: Don’t avoid the topic

The most important thing to take away is that avoiding the topic of death doesn't make it not happen and it doesn't mean your child will not think about it. In fact, avoiding the topic may make your child more fearful. They're looking to us as parents to help them understand and feel more comfortable with a really scary topic. Even if we can't give them all the answers, being present and talking about our children’s emotions can help them begin to have a healthier relationship with us and healthier understanding of death.

Child Psychology

Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine