Talking to a child about death can be difficult. Children see the world very differently to adults, and it can be difficult to gauge what their level of understanding is. Naturally, children look to the adults in their life for guidance and support. It’s important to be understanding, even if you are experiencing grief yourself, and to try to answer their questions as fully as possible. While it can be upsetting both to you and to the child, it’s important that you explain death to them and what it means.

Mother talking to a child about death

Keep language simple

Avoid euphemisms, as these can confuse children and cause misunderstandings of what death is. For example, ‘passed on’, ‘gone to sleep’ and ‘taken by angels’ can all be interpreted to have different meanings. Children often understand words very literally, so what you mean and what they hear may not be the same. This can lead children to ask, ‘If that person has gone to sleep, why don’t we wake them up?’, or, ‘If we lost them, why aren’t we looking for them?’  To avoid confusion, say, ‘That person died.’ Honesty is really important. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. You’re not expected to have an answer for everything, or to always know what to say.

How to explain death and what it means

Children will inevitably ask, ‘What does it mean when someone dies?’ The answer to this question will depend on their age. Your explanation shouldn’t be over complicated; some of the things you can talk about include:

  • The body stops working: the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, the person does not move.
  • It’s a permanent change. You need to convey that what has happened is irreversible – the person is not coming back.
  • Different people have different beliefs about what happens when you die. Talk about these different ideas, and you can also discuss what you believe.
  • Death is a natural part of life. You could use examples from the natural world, like a dead insect or a fallen leaf.

Other questions and possible answers

Children may have many questions about death, and can be very curious by nature. This is often exacerbated by the taboo that still exists in society when it comes to talking about death.

When they have a question about death, turn it round on them and say, ‘What do you think?’. This allows the child to formulate their own ideas, and gives you some time to consider how you want to respond. You’re able to build on their answer, and the child may discover they know more about death than they realised. Answer as honestly as you can, in simple terms your child will understand.

Why do people die?

Most people die when they are very old, because their body is worn out. Other people die from bad accidents that damage their body or from very serious illnesses that the doctors can’t fix.

Will I die?

Everybody dies eventually, all living things, it’s a natural part of life. Children are usually healthy and strong, and live long full lives. Most people don’t die until they are very old.

What happens after someone dies?

When someone dies, we prepare to say goodbye to that person. We usually arrange a funeral or memorial service.

Why do we have funerals?

It’s a way to say goodbye to someone we love. We arrange funerals so that everyone who knew them can celebrate their life. It’s a time to remember the person and think about what they meant to us.

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