It can be difficult, even overwhelming, to answer your child’s grieving questions about death, especially because you yourself are mourning the death of the family member. You might hesitate because of fear of making your child upset. However, it’s important for them to know the truth to prevent false assumptions, to let them process their feelings, and to help them learn that death is inevitable. We hope the guide below will make the conversations a little easier.
- Encourage open dialogue.
Some kids will struggle to understand what it means when their family member dies or find it difficult to put their feelings into words. Encourage open dialogue to help them express their feelings. Make time to talk about what they’re going through and answer questions when they ask. Some parents/caregivers might feel that not talking about death and grief can help their kids “move on,” but this can have the opposite effect. It is also important to share your feelings, so they can understand that it’s not bad to feel sad or angry.
- Provide age-appropriate answers.
Expect conversations about death and grief to happen from time to time. Try to consider their age while answering questions. As they cope with their feelings and start to understand what death means, expect to answer more specific questions.
For example, preschool children might not understand that a dead person is never coming back. When talking to younger children about death, they might understand better if you read a children’s picture book about death and grief. Additionally, tailor your language to their age and avoid providing too much information at once to avoid making them confused and overwhelmed.
School-aged children have a better understanding of the permanence of death but they might also wonder about the biological aspect of death. You can start by explaining it to them in simple terms, such as telling them that death happens when the body stops working. Additionally, they might blame themselves and fear that they and their loved ones might also die. For instance, they might ask you questions such as, “Will I also die soon?” You can explain that most people die during old age, or due to a serious illness.
Teens might become curious about the philosophical and spiritual side of life and death. For instance, they might ask questions about the meaning and purpose of life. The best approach is to be honest, even if you don’t know the answer. But remember that they might also prefer the company of their friends during this difficult time. Tell them that you’re always there for them when they need you.
- Be sensitive but truthful.
When talking to a child about the death, avoid using words such as “gone,” “sleeping,” or “lost.” Kids can take words literally, so they might think that the person is just resting and may come back. Kids need to learn that death is permanent and all living beings, including pets, will die. This can help avoid misconceptions about death, which allows them to grieve and prevent or overcome feelings of guilt. Additionally, you don’t have to make up something if you don’t know the answer. You can tell them the truth or say that you will get back to them after finding out. This way, your child will feel that it is OK not knowing everything.
- Reiterate that it’s not their fault.
Some children may feel they are to blame for the death of their family member. For example, they may think that it happened because they got angry at the person and wished for them to “disappear.” Or they might blame themselves for not doing something to prevent their family member’s death. If your child is showing signs of self-blame, reassure them that it’s normal to feel sad and guilty for the death of a loved one, but it is also not their fault that the person died.
- Know when to seek professional help.
Some kids might suffer from childhood trauma because of the death of a loved one, which can have an impact on their physical health, mental health, and relationships. Look out for signs such as extreme changes in their usual behavior, anxiety and depression, difficulty sleeping and eating, or alcohol and substance abuse. Many treatment options can help manage your kid’s trauma. If you think that your child needs help from a professional, you can consult their physician. They can refer you to the right therapist who can help with your child’s grief. You can also contact your child’s school and find out if they offer resources for grief or can help you find a grief counselor in your area.
Common questions about death from kids
Below are some of the challenging questions you can probably expect from your grieving child, with responses you can tweak in ways that feel right to you.
Q: What is death?
When explaining the concept of death to a young child, it is important to be truthful and direct to the point. You could help them understand by focusing on the biological aspect. For example, you can tell them that a person dies because the body stopped working, so they can’t eat, feel, speak, or walk anymore.
Q: Why did they die?
Your child might be asking the reason for the death of their person. Or maybe they are wondering why their sibling wasn’t cured by doctors. This question might also pop up while they’re expressing their feeling of sadness for the event. Tell them the truth in a simple way. For instance, if the person died of a terminal illness, then explain that the doctors tried their best to provide treatment, but couldn’t fix the problem. It is also important to name the illness so they don’t think that all people who get sick automatically die.
Q: When are they coming back?
Your child might ask this question if they don’t understand the concept of death. They might look for their person from time to time. That’s why it is important to explain that a dead person won’t be “fixed” or brought back to life.
Q: Where do dead people go?
Answering the question will depend on your family’s spiritual beliefs and religion, so you can tailor it accordingly. Knowing where their person went somewhere may bring comfort to them as well. If you don’t have a certain belief, then you can also say that you are unsure.
Q: How long will I feel this way?
Your child needs to know that it takes time for feelings of grief to get better, especially if they were close to their person. If they are still young, they might not understand why they feel sad, or even put it into words. You can teach your children to label their feelings as you talk about it with them. Reassure them that feelings change, and they might get sad from time to time but you are always there for them.
Experiencing the death of a family member can be traumatic enough for adults, who understand the concept of death. But it can be more difficult for children, who might find the concept of death confusing. Being honest, direct, and empathetic can go a long way in supporting your child during this difficult time.
Michael Vallejo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a private practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a child & family therapist who is passionate about helping kids and teens be happy, healthy, and self-confident. He enjoys providing parent coaching to support caregivers in navigating the ups and downs of their child’s development. Michael is also the co-owner of Mental Health Center Kids, providing printable mental health resources to parents and mental health professionals. He maintains a blog on a variety of social emotional learning topics.