Suggestions for this guide stem from direct experience in school counseling, coupled with advice given by Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and parenting expert, Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and grief expert, and Dr. Christine Carter,
Core Principle: Make It Simple and Adapted for Each Child
When you talk to your child, use language that is simple, honest, and clear, and behaviors that are loving, reassuring, and openhearted. Remember that this is just a guide and you are the most attuned to your child and what they need. Use your inner compass to adapt these suggestions for your family and situation.
Q: How early should I start?
A: As young as three.
Q: What would I say to a three year old?
A: One option is to point out death in nature.
- “See that tree that has fallen over? It has died and is breaking down. It will eventually return to the ground, and new things will grow there.”
- “No, that squirrel isn’t sleeping, sweetie. It’s dead. Its body isn’t working any more.”
Another option is to define the concept.
- “Death is when a person or an animal’s body stops working and they can’t breathe, think, see, eat, or play anymore. Their entire body stops working. This is what we mean when we say someone is dead.”
Note that young kids might also integrate death in imaginary play (acting out a funeral for a stuffed animal or staging a death scene). This is a natural and healthy way to begin to understand and make sense of death.
Q: What about school-aged children?
A: Use simple and clear language that communicates to your child that death is final, permanent, and inevitable. Use plain language, like “dead” and “dying.”
- “Everything living has a lifetime. That means they are born, they grow up, and eventually their body stops working and they die. This happens to plants, animals, and people.”
- “When a person or animal dies, their body stops working, and they can no longer see, hear, breathe, or feel anything.”
- “Death happens when the body gets very old, sick, injured, or worn out, and it stops working. When the body dies, it is irreversible and that body will never work again.”
Once you’ve spelled out what death means in simple terms, you can also express your personal beliefs about an afterlife. It’s important to start with concrete terms to not confuse kids. As Julie Samuel says, “All the metaphors, like “they’ve gone to a better place,” “they’ve got to heaven,” “we’ve lost them,” are confusing for children because children have magical thinking and “heaven” can be the hamburger joint down the road or they lose things everyday, but they find them again. So I think it’s important to use very concrete terms— like “death”— and then whatever your belief system is. You can say you believe grandpa is in heaven if that’s what you believe. But they need that first piece of concrete evidence that grandpa has died.”
Even then, avoid euphemisms or metaphors that are simply misleading, such as “gone to sleep,” “resting,” or “lost.” These descriptions are confusing and potentially anxiety provoking for children.
Q: What if my child asks, “Why do people die?”
A: Explain simply that death is part of the life-cycle.
- “Everyone and everything eventually dies. Our bodies wear out and stop working. This is a natural part of life. Animals, plants, and people are born, they live, and someday they will die. When someone or something dies, it allows something new to grow.”
Q: What if my child asks, “Will you die?” or “When are you going to die?”
A: Be honest about the inevitability of death, but reassure them that you will likely be around for many years to come.
- “I’m not going to die right now, but someday my body will stop working, and I will die. Everything living will die someday, including me. But I am healthy, and I will probably live for a long, long time. Usually people die when they are old and have lived for a long time, like (my grandparent or great grandparent.)”
Q: Will my child become afraid of every illness and injury?
A: Reassure your child that not everyone that gets sick or injured will die, in fact most often animals and people recover to full health.
- “Usually, when people get sick or injured they can get better, and they don’t die. Remember when you got the flu and you didn’t feel well for a few days? You rested and then your body got better and now you are very healthy. Most of the time, we can get better when we are sick or injured, and we don’t die.”
Q: What if my child asks, “What happens after we die?”
A: Your response will depend on your belief system. It’s important to be clear that when a body dies and stops working, that person or animal will never function or wake up again. Then if you have a belief system about heaven or an afterlife, share that with your child. Only share a belief about life after death if you truly believe it yourself. You children need to be able to trust you to be honest and consistent in order for them to make sense of the world and trust life.
Don’t share a belief in an afterlife or being reunited after death that you don’t truly subscribe to just to make the death easier for you child. This is confusing for a child. Be consistent and trustworthy.
- “Different people have different beliefs about what happens when we die. Some people believe in heaven or an afterlife, while others believe that our bodies simply stop working and we cease to exist. I believe ______. What do you think?”
Q: What if my child asks, “What happens to the body after someone dies?”
A: If your family had a death of a loved one, you can give a response that is specific. Otherwise, you can describe cultural practices in general.
- “When someone dies, their body is usually taken to a funeral home and it is prepared for a funeral or memorial service. Some people choose to be buried in a cemetery, while others may be cremated and have their ashes scattered. Cremation is when a body is burned in a fire.”
Q: What if my child asks, “When will they come back?”
A: Younger children might ask this question repeatedly while they are accepting the death of a loved one. Again, be honest, clear, and gentle.
- “When the body stops working and someone dies, they can’t come back. We will miss them so much and we can remember them as often as we like. When a body dies, it can’t start working again.”
Q: What if my child asks, “Will I die someday?”
- “Yes, everyone will die eventually, but we hope that you will live a long, healthy, and happy life before that happens. Your body is healthy and strong. We can have fun doing all the things you enjoy.”
Q: What if my child asks, “Does it hurt to die?”
- “When a person’s or animal’s body stops working, they no longer feel any pain. Sometimes a person or animal may be in pain or discomfort before they die, but after they die, they don’t have any pain.”
Q: What can I say if there is a possible or imminent death of a loved one?
- “You may have noticed that grandma isn’t as strong as she used to be and she isn’t walking as well. She is very sick. The doctors are trying to make grandma better, but we don’t know if her body can get better. Everyone is doing their best to take care of her. Do you have any questions about what’s happening?”
- “Grandpa has been sick for a long time and his body isn’t working well anymore. The doctors have said that he will die. We don’t know when he will die, but the doctors are going to try to make him comfortable while he is still alive.”
Q: How can I support my child to grieve?
A: Allow your kids to grieve in their own way and in their own time. They might be very upset and cry, or they might carry on with their day and ask for a snack. It isn’t necessary to either encourage or ease the movement of grief, simply allow it to flow as it naturally does in your child. Keep the communication open and honest, and assure your child that you are available to them when they need support or have questions. See our grief rituals for other suggestions.
- “I know that (the person or pet) was important to you and that you loved them so much. If you’re feeling confused, angry, or sad about not being able to see them anymore, it’s okay. You can talk to me anytime or ask me anything, or just sit with me quietly if you want. I can help you get through this.”
- “There are so many people in your life that love and care about you, like me, Aunt ____, your best friend _____, etc. We are all here for you.”
- “Remember how _____ used to read to you? Whenever we read together we keep their memory alive and you can feel them in your heart. Do you ever feel that? It’s ok if you do or don’t.”
- “We will always remember _______. We can talk about them, look at pictures of them, and do some of the things that they enjoyed. We will always love ______. Love never dies, even though they are no longer with us.”
Q: Will my child get scared if they see me sad or grieving?
A: Showing your child that you can feel and express grief, and still continue engaging in life is reassuring and will become a model for their own expression of healthy grief. This gives your child permission to grieve, and also shows them that they can survive the pain of loss. When you model healthy grief for your child, you are teaching them that grief is natural and normal. When you take care of yourself, you are also taking care of your child.
- “Right now I’m really missing _____ and feeling sad. How are you feeling?”
Q: What if my child is asking the same question repeatedly or seems to be fixated on death?
A: First, try to understand the root of their worry. Are they concerned about feeling pain at death? Concerned that you will die? Concerned that it could happen at any time? What exactly is causing them to worry?
Once you have a good insight about what’s causing their worries, focus on that. If they’re worried that they will die, consider showing them data about how unlikely each cause of death is for the average kid. For instance, many people worry about shark deaths, but there are only around 10 such deaths each year in a world with 8 billion people. It’s hard to visualize how small the likelihood is, but according to one estimate, a pile of 8 billion grains of rice would be nearly 70 feet tall and 138 feet in diameter. Contrasted with a pile that large, 10 grains is nothing worth fixating on. In other words, a shark death is possible but not likely.
In addition, helping your child to retell the details of a painful or traumatic loss can simply be a way for them to process the loss and make sense of it. Allow them to share their anxiety, fear, guilt, anger, or sadness to you, and you can offer them reassurance, unconditional love, and information when needed. Listen, validate, and empathize with your child.
- “Tell me what you remember when I came home from the hospital and told you that grandpa was going to die” Help them fill in the blanks and create a narrative. Use prompts like “What happened next?” or “That was surprising and sad, wasn’t it?” Help your child tell the story, name their feelings, and bring their fears and worries out in the open.
“Anyone who is old enough to love is old enough to grieve,” Alan Wolfelt, grief counselor
Signs that your child may be grieving:
- Somatic symptoms, like a tummy ache or headache
- A change in eating or sleeping patterns
- Having dreams or nightmares,possible about the person or pet that died
- For younger kids, asking you repeatedly, where the person or pet went
- Irritability, withdrawal, or anger
- For younger kids developmental regression, like thumb-sucking, toileting, or difficulty going to bed independently
- Expressing guilt about the loss
- Expressing fear or worry about death or asking a lot of question
- Unusual separation anxiety
- Difficulty with focus and concentration
- Loss of interest in friendships or activities
- For teens, risky or acting out behaviors
Ritual helps kids and adults face the pain and the reality of loss. Gathering in connection and communion allows us to accept the loss, process grief, and get the support we need.
Family rituals after a death of a person or a pet:
- Gather as a family and ask, “How would you like to remember our loved one?”
- Prepare a favorite meal of the person who died, or have a meal together at their favorite restaurant
- Keep a photograph or treasured object belonging to the loved one that died in a special place in the home. Consider lighting a candle near that place during meaningful times.
- When a loved one dies, if appropriate allow family members to select an item belonging to the deceased to keep in remembrance.
- Listen to the person’s favorite music together. You might draw or color in silence as you listen.
- Gather to share favorite memories of the person or pet.
- Organize a family service opportunity in the name of the person or pet.
- Include children in the funeral and/or memorial services to the extent that they want to participate.
- For a pet death, you might have a burial and memorial service on your home’s property. Ask each family member to participate in the way they want.
- For a pet, get a paw print to hold as a keepsake.
- Take a walk together in nature and talk about memories and stories of the loved one.
- Write a letter to the pet or person that died. Consider gathering around a fire outside, taking turns reading the letter, and putting the letter in the fire as a closing ritual.
- For younger kids, make death part of play, like staging an imaginary death scene or funeral for a stuffed animal.
- Acknowledge important dates and holidays in the aftermath of a loss (for example the deceased person’s birthday, first holidays without the person, etc.) You can mark the day in small and simple ways, like having a birthday cake and singing”Happy Birthday,” or each family member naming one kind thing they will do in the person’s memory for the holiday.
- Make a playlist of songs that remind you of the person or pet you’ve lost.
- Create a memory box for the deceased person or pet. Gather items that remind you of the person or pet, like photos, clothing, toys, or trinkets. Decorate the box if desired, and put the items in the box as a holder of memories. The box can be kept in a special place, or even buried as part of a ritual to say goodbye. The memory box can be done as a family, or just one child.