Explaining Death to a Child
Death and grief are confronting topics for all of us, and even more so when we have to explain these concepts to children. We think that because they are so small, children can't (and shouldn't have to) handle big topics like death.
But death is a part of life. We'd all much rather it wasn't, but it is, and shielding children from death can actually do more harm than good.
"So often we want to protect children from death and avoid dealing with it, but we are actually protecting them from a vital learning, which will come at a cost later in life. Coping with significant loss and death is a vital life skill that children can benefit from experiencing while they are still children."
- Maggie Dent, Parenting Author and Educator -
I believe death and the afterlife shouldn't be taboo topics for children. I'm a strong proponent of having honest and open conversations with children about death, even before they experience death in their life.
This is one of the reasons I wrote Happy Hearts, to help parents start a conversation with their kids about death and the afterlife, as well as to bring comfort to those who have lost a loved one.
Below are a few tips on explaining death to children that I found helpful. Just remember, you're not going to know all the answers, and every child is going to deal with grief and loss differently. I have listed a number of helpful resources at the bottom of the page if you or your child is struggling with grief.
Death is not a bad word
Death, dead, died. These are confronting words. They make you shudder. They feel bitter on your tongue. They make us uncomfortable.
So, we instead use phrases like "passed away" or "gone to sleep", which don't sound as harsh. We think this will help 'soften' the blow for children. But using ambiguous phrases like this can be confusing for children, and may actually lead to additional fears.
It may be difficult for us as parents or carers, but it's best to use simple, easy to understand language with children. When my mum died, my son was nearly 4, and I said to him, plain and simple, "Nana died last night." His response was sweet (and age appropriate), he said "Oh that's sad, I'm sorry mummy."
Children ask a lot of questions, and they will have a lot of questions about death. You don't need to know all the answers, but take the time to listen and answer their questions as best as you can.
When my mum died, my children were both under 4, so they couldn't grasp the enormity of the situation. It wasn't until my son was about 5 and a half that he started asking questions about death.
After reading Mem Fox's book, "The Tiny Star", he started asking me some pretty profound questions:
When will I die?
Where will I live when you die?
When you die, can you still see Earth?
So, you die on Earth and then you're alive again in heaven?
How do you get to heaven?
Is God magic like the Genie?
Can I take my toys to heaven?
In heaven, are you standing up?
What is it like in heaven?
It's intense to be asked these questions by a 5 year old, and you can feel overwhelmed because you don't have all the answers. That is completely normal. I didn't have the answers to all of my son's questions, but I answered them the best I could. We had a cuddle and he took some time to process this new information before going about his day.
I know it would make many parents uncomfortable or upset to be asked these questions by their child, but it is our duty as parents, grandparents, teachers or carers to answer these questions as honestly and sensitively as we can.
If you feel you are unable to answer your child's questions about death, seek the help of a professional counsellor.
When someone we love dies, it hurts on so many levels. The process of grief is unpredictable and is full of swirling emotions, not just for us, but for children too.
Children learn about emotions, how to express them appropriately, and how to deal with them by watching others, particularly their parents or carers. Don't be afraid to show your child how grief is making you feel and explain these emotions to your child.
If you feel the need to cry, cry in front of your child and explain that you are feeling sad because you miss the person who has died. Children need to see that it's okay to experience big emotions when someone they love dies.
Our sons need to see their mums and dads (especially dads) cry when someone special dies so that we normalise that crying is a very normal and healthy way of expressing grief and sadness for men and women.
- Maggie Dent, Parenting Author and Educator -
If children don't see those around them expressing emotion, they may suppress their emotions, which can lead to anger, rage or inappropriate behaviour.
Also remember that it is completely normal for some children, particularly young children, to show no emotion at all, or to change emotions very quickly after someone dies. Their young brains are still processing this new experience, and they may take some time to respond in the way we expect them to. Allow your child to express whatever emotion they are experiencing at the time, and if appropriate, talk about why they may be feeling that emotion.
You're not going to know all the answers, and thankfully there are plenty of resources to help you and your child through grief:
Australian Centre of Grief and Bereavement - https://www.grief.org.au/
National Centre for Childhood Grief - https://www.childhoodgrief.org.au/
Good Grief - https://www.goodgrief.org.au/
Kids Helpline - Supporting a child through grief and loss - https://kidshelpline.com.au/parents/issues/supporting-child-through-grief-and-loss
Raising Children – Death: How to talk about it with children - https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/connecting-communicating/tough-topics/death-how-to-talk-about-it
Maggie Dent – Death and Loss - https://www.maggiedent.com/common-concerns/death-loss/
There are also a range of children's books which can help children cope with grief and loss, these are some of my favourites:
'The Tiny Star' by Mem Fox
'Waiting for Wolf' by Sandra Dieckmann
'Ida, Always' by Caron Levis
'The Heart and the Bottle' by Oliver Jeffers
and of course, Happy Hearts.
More detailed lists of children's books about grief and loss can be found here: