Talking to Young Children about Death

In March 2010, my young cousin died suddenly.  She left a shocked and bereaved family including her 2 year old daughter and 4 year old son.  We worried about her husband and wondered how he could possibly help his young children to cope with this tragedy.  We, as adults, could not understand how such a kind and loving person could be taken in her prime and why these two children had to grow up without their mother.  If we cannot understand death, how can we help children to understand why all life ends?  I am not a bereavement specialist and would not claim to be one.  I do, however, know about children and how they think.  I will forever admire my cousin’s husband for providing his children with what all children ultimately need from us – honesty.
Young children cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality.  They depend on us to help them to do that.  Their inability to differentiate is the reason that they can believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the monster on their closet.  It is why they can believe in superheroes and why they talk back to the television as if the characters can hear them.  This inability to know what is real and what is not can provide the magic of mystical holidays but it also can fuel fear and confusion.  Our children place their trust in us and depend on us for truth.  I remember when my son realized there was no tooth fairy.  He felt conned.  I even remember when I was a girl and the teacher on “Romper Room” would wish me a happy birthday through her magic mirror.  It was amazing – until I saw my mother writing to the show about my sister’s birthday.  I couldn’t believe my mother set it all up.  The little things – the fantasies of childhood – are not life altering and not scary so we use their imaginations to create special moments.  This is not like when a beloved pet, a favorite aunt or, unfortunately, even a parent suddenly disappears.   That disappearance becomes even more confusing when we say that the deceased are in a place the children can see.  Children wonder, “If my dog is in the sky, why can’t I see him?”  If Mommy went on a vacation, why isn’t she coming back?  Simple and honest explanations, even saying we don’t know, are far less confusing than anything we can make up.

When a loved one is taken, children need to know that they can still love someone who is not physically there.   My father died when my sons were 3 & 7 years old.  I felt it was important for them to know that he would not be here anymore.  He would not be at Thanksgiving or other family gatherings but we remember him and still love him.  I made sure not to say that he was living in another house or on a cloud or in another familiar object because they were at a literal age and would look for that house, cloud or object for years.  I didn’t associate his death with their world in any way.  It is okay to share your beliefs.  Perhaps you believe that we go to a place called heaven.  Explain to children what you believe about heaven.  You might not believe in any life after death.  In that case, you can focus only on the memories of a loved one rather than where they are. 

Most importantly, it is imperative that children see that it is acceptable to be sad.  For many generations, children were shielded from attending the rites and rituals associated with death.  Often, what children are imagining is far scarier than the reality.  Being sad is part of the human condition.  Children are sometimes sad.  They can know that sadness is an emotion also felt by adults.  Sometimes adults cry and they stop just like children do.  If children will be attending a funeral or other death ritual, they should be told that the adults will be sad and might cry.  Knowing what is coming makes the reality less frightening.  They will expect it and they can relate to crying.  They actually understand that emotion and want to comfort you like you comfort them.  They can learn from watching you deal with emotion and watching you cope.

Remember that most children are already aware of death.  They see insects die.  They see plants die.  They can see death on television and in video games.  Talking to them about death gently and honestly helps explain a life condition that they have already seen.  By using the words for a condition they have seen and saying someone has died, it gives a name to that which they see in nature all the time.

My cousin’s children know the word “died.”  They are now 5 years old and 7 years old.  In the course of conversation, they will sometime say , “My mommy died.”  We reply , “Yes, she did.”  And the conversation goes to another topic.  They know their mother isn’t here with us while not really understanding why.  We don’t understand it either.  It just is.

For information about children coping with loss, go to


Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
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