How to Explain Death to a Child

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As much as you want to shield your children from fear or heartbreak, sooner or later you’ll need to help them understand the painful fact that life comes to an end for everyone. The task is even harder if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one. Here’s how to help kids understand the concept of death without causing unnecessary confusion or anxiety.

Listen for their cues

Even young children often intuitively know about death—they may have seen a dead animal in nature, or experienced the loss of a pet—and have at least an inkling that there’s a continuum from life to death. “Most kids are curious and want to talk about it, and they’re looking for cues from you as to whether it’s okay to do so,” says Pilar Jennings, a psychoanalyst and grief expert and the author of To Heal a Wounded Heart. “The less mysterious it is, the less anxiety they have about it.”

Involve them in family rituals

When children are more actively involved in the rituals and preparations surrounding death—attending a wake or a funeral, visiting a family member who’s going to die—it can help them digest and process what’s happening. “It sometimes gives kids an opportunity to ask questions: Are you afraid to die? What do you think happens after you die?,” she says. “It can help dispel some of the terror that comes with the mystery.”

You can also talk about the purpose of these rituals (“It gives us a chance to say goodbye and remember our favorite things about the person who died”) and how they fit into your own beliefs about death.

Level with them

Explaining death is kind of like explaining sex, says Jennings—you should use the proper terms and avoid cutesy metaphors (“Rover went on a long journey to a meadow in the sky!”). Remember that children can take what you say literally, and these euphemisms may confuse or frighten them even more.

Even the mysterious parts of death can be discussed candidly. “You can say, ‘We come in these bodies and the bodies don’t last forever. This is what we think happens when your body dies, but some people believe other things,’” she says. If they ask a question and you aren’t sure how to respond, it’s better to be honest and say, “I don’t know for sure,” or “I wonder about that too,” rather than reaching for a tidy answer.

Don’t dodge the tough questions

Chances are the conversation will take a turn to your (or your child’s) own eventual death. Even if your child blurts out something like “But you’ll never die!”—don’t panic. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to talk about the preciousness of life.

It doesn’t have to be a depressing conversation, Jennings points out. “You can reassure them—explaining that you hope you will live a long, full life, and that they will always be taken care of—but still answer their questions honestly.”

Discuss your own emotions

It can be tough for children to put their emotions into words, so conveying what you’re feeling—over the following days, weeks, and months—can help. “Grief doesn’t just evaporate as time goes on,” says Jennings. “The emotions can come in waves of intensity,” especially around holidays or other meaningful days (like the deceased’s birthday or the anniversary of their death). Talk to your child about what you’re feeling and let them know that it’s okay to still feel sad or angry—or to feel happiness again.

Let them know there’s no “right” way to grieve

Everyone reacts differently to death, says Jennings, so don’t expect your child’s emotions or behavior to mirror your own. Some children may show their sadness by crying a lot; others may go quiet and duck into their shell. Some children may act out or regress behaviorally, while others may go about their business as if nothing is wrong.

“Your child may still be processing the concept of death, or they may be working through their emotions,” she says. “It’s important to listen, be there for them, and let them know it’s okay to feel whatever it is that they’re feeling.”

Encourage them to talk about their loved one

Children shouldn’t feel afraid to bring up the loss or the person who has died, says Jennings. “This only isolates them in their emotions and their experience.” Explain to them that although thinking about the person’s death might make them feel sad, talking about it can also make them feel better. Encourage them to share memories, look at pictures of the person who has died, or talk about where they might be now.

Let the conversation continue later

If your child is ready to change the subject before you’ve said all you want to say, let it end there. Sometimes too much information can be overwhelming. But it’s important to affirm that death isn’t too scary to talk about, and you can come back to the subject if they have more questions later on.

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