Death- Telling a Child About Death & Dying

by Gen Zaroura, LCSW of Gen Zaroura,LCSW ( 21-Aug-2011 )



A Word  to Caregivers



The loss of a family member can be a significant trauma in the life of a child and how a caregiver reacts can and will impact the way in which a child views death and grieving for the rest of their life.  Often, parents are in shock during the initial stages of grief and are unsure how to inform the child of the loss.  How you explain the loss depends on the age and developmental stage of the child.  It is important to have an understanding of how each age group views and understands the concept of death prior to exploring the issue with your child.




Toddlers to Preschoolers


Children up to around age 5 seem to view death as an impermanent state.  They struggle with the concept of “reversibility” and may ask when the lost loved one will return.  Usually children this age have witnessed the death and reincarnation of cartoon or fantasy characters on television and may try applying these concepts to the current situation.  It will be important to help the child to understand that the lost love one is not returning to life and will not physically be interacting with the child from this point on.  Children in this developmental stage need gentle reminding that the loved one will not be returning and may ask about their return often during the first few months.  Remain patient.




When sharing about the death, keep the conversation short and simple.  Use concrete examples and wording that is familiar and easy for the child to understand.  For example, when an insect dies, it can no longer breathe, move, eat, sleep, feel or communicate.  Once the child understands this concept, it can be applied to the death of the loved one. Avoid references to sleep or rest since children this age are easily confused and may relate dying to sleep, causing distress at nap and bedtime.




Elementary Age Children


Children around ages 5 to 10 generally seem to understand the concept of death as it relates to the physical end of life of plants and animals.  They do however tend to view death as something outside themselves and their personal relationships and are often shocked at the realization that death can occur within their personal relationships.  At times, the inquisitive and creative nature of these children will lead them to investigate how to escape death or bring back a love one (e.g. time machine).  Children in this developmental stage may also experience fear related to the idea of death and dying, especially the possibility of dying themselves.  It should also be noted that many children experience the loss of a loved one as a consequence of their own actions, blaming themselves for not being good enough or causing the loved one to die.  These children need frequent reminders that the loss happened outside of the child-family member relationship and was related to the physical death of the body (e.g. His/her body stopped working).




When sharing about death, communicate honestly and be prepared for lots of questions.  Remain open to the child’s inquisitive nature and explain in the best way that you can, based on your own personal beliefs and experiences.




Early Adolescence


Children around ages 10 to early teenage-hood are capable of fully understanding the irreversibility of death.  It is often during this stage that the child will begin to question their religious views, concept of the meaning of life, and their purpose in the world.  The loss of a loved one can significantly impact the overall emotional well being of these children, especially as they move into the teenage years and are experiencing a flood of changing hormones.  Open discussion of the child’s views on life and death as it relates to their own understanding of the world is encouraged, in a non-judgmental manner.




Telling the Child:  Who should tell the child?
Children need to feel secure and safe with a loved when they are told about the death.  A parent, grandparent or close caregiver usually can provide this emotional support when sharing about the loss. Whatever the age, reassurance about their own safety and caretaking are essential.  Ensure that the child understands that they are in no way responsible for the death, are loved, and will always be taken care of.  In the event that both parents are deceased make sure that you are prepared to provide the child with reassurance about who will be caring for them from this point forward.  Validate the child’s feelings by reflecting them back and letting them know that they are normal and to be expected.






Grief is a process and every child’s grief process is different.  Allow your child space to grieve in their own way, in their own time.  Provide your child with opportunities to share about their feelings related to the death and try not to force the child to converse if they are not ready.  Simply accept the child where he or she is at, giving them the space they need to process the death.  Children’s responses vary in relation to their personality, experience and family dynamics.  Some children will demonstrate what some parents deem as a more “significant” grief reaction to the death of a pet in comparison to the death of a family member.  Simply because a child outwardly shows more emotion related to one loss compared to another does not mean that the loss was any less significant to the child.  Again, every child and every relationship is different and how we process the end of a relationship will vary.  Always remain supportive, open and non-judgmental when your child expresses his or her grief.




Remembering the Loved One


Encourage children to remember their loved one in a way that is special to them.  Through writing, singing, music, art, play or physical expressions children can relay their feelings related to the loss.  Let your child choose the way that feels right to him/herself.  You may also want to create family traditions to celebrate the life of the loved one on holidays or anniversaries related to the individual’s birth or death.  How your family decides to do this is entirely up to you.  What is important is that it is unique to your family as it relates to the specialness of the deceased loved one.




Lastly, no parent has all the answers about death.  Each of us continues to expand our own views on the issue as we journey throughout our life.  There is nothing wrong with replying to a question with a simple, “What do you think?”  This provides an opportunity for your child to share his or her thoughts, concerns, and feelings which are often very creative and unique.


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