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How to talk about death with kids: 8 tips to make the uncomfortable more manageable

emotional mother and young daughter hugging
Tanya Yatsenko/Stocksy

No parent enjoys having heavy conversations with their children. We want to protect them from the tough stuff in life. Yet, the very act of trying to protect our children from pain can do them more harm in the long run. So how in the world do we approach a topic as big and heavy as death?

As a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) who has worked in pediatric intensive care units and within the community setting, I have spent countless hours sitting with and supporting children and families through the most gut-wrenching experiences in their lives. Families facing devastating car accidents, house fires, medical traumas and deaths are often left in shambles and unsure of how to support the children in their lives through something so big. That’s where I come in.

As a CCLS, I work alongside the caregivers to break the news to the children in a developmentally appropriate and supportive way. I often use play and other therapeutic tools to give children space to process their experiences and emotions. Children can be quite resilient; however, this is only true if they are set up with appropriate support and guidance to cope with life’s big hurdles and obstacles.

Death is part of life and something that all humans will experience at some point. Sometimes our circumstances force us to have conversations about death in early childhood. Here are a few tips that can help you have these tough conversations about death with your child.

Start conversations early with simple examples in nature

We can start conversations about death at the youngest of ages. Perhaps you are on a walk with your toddler and they spot an insect or bird that has died and they ask why it isn’t moving. You can simply say, “The bird died.” They may ask some follow up questions and  you can answer them accordingly. Perhaps they want to know when the bird will get up and fly again. “When something is dead it can’t move, breathe or do anything that living things do.” Once death does hit a little closer to home they will have that foundation or at least be able to reflect back on the memory.

Create a safe emotional and physical space for you and your child

When having emotionally heavy conversations we want to set up a safe time and space for ourselves and our children. Clear the distractions, take care of your own emotional needs as best as possible and provide a private space for this conversation. What does that safe space look like for you and your child? Is it somewhere at home? Is it outside in nature on a walk?

Find out what they know first

Perhaps there has been an illness, an aging family member or pet or changes already occurring that your child has witnessed. You can bring this up and see what they know already and build upon their current knowledge. This may look like, “Our dog is getting old. She is graying and having a hard time walking and using the bathroom. Have you noticed this too? You may have some questions about what is happening.” Simple phrases like “Tell me what you know” or “What do you know/think about that” can help gauge how much they already know and how much we need to give them in terms of information or clarification.

Tell the truth

This one can be tough. We may want to say that the dead pet “went to the farm to live with someone else.” Or perhaps your child asks, “will you die one day” and you immediately want to blurt out “no, of course not.” I understand why our knee-jerk reaction is to lie and protect. However, kids will find out the truth one day and we want to make sure that we build trust through honesty. Kids are smarter than most adults give them credit for. They may even know the answer, but want confirmation from their caregiver.

Keep it simple and concrete

You want to avoid euphemisms like “passed away,” “gone,” “lost” and other terms that try to soften the word death. It may feel harsh or blunt, but using the words death, died and dying are actually the best words to use. Euphemisms can be confusing to children and can create misconceptions.

This can look like, “I have some really sad news to share with you. Your grandpa died yesterday. His heart stopped beating.”

Sharing a specific reason for the cause of death can take away any misconceptions about why the death happened. Sometimes young children think that they caused the death because of something they thought or did.

These are not one and done conversations. Children do best with small bits of information, building naturally over time. Follow their lead. Give them a one or two sentence answer and wait for their cues to let you know if they need more information at the time.

Utilize books as a scaffold to these difficult conversations

Books can play such a beautiful role in helping children and families through difficult conversations. They can literally give you the words when you may not know what in the world to say. A good, developmentally appropriate book will also proactively answer common questions children may have about death and grief.

A few of my favorites are:

Normalize showing a large range of emotions

Let your child know that it is okay to feel any emotion. Let them in on how you are feeling and know that it is okay to show your tears, frustrations, anger, guilt—all of it. Showing and verbalizing your own emotions gives your child a model and permission to do the same.

Help children find tools and coping strategies to move through all these different emotions

Just like adults, children will each have their own unique ways of coping with difficult emotions and situations. There is no one right way, but we can help children find a variety of different tools that they can pull from their coping box.