How to talk to children about death

Kate BucklandBlog

Most people find death something that is uncomfortable to talk about, but knowing how to talk to children about death can be particularly difficult. If not done right, it can be a traumatic experience for both the adult and the child taking part in the conversation. You might not have considered the need to discuss death with your child, but unfortunately it is something that they will definitely have to deal with during their life. Whether your child’s first experience with death is that of a much loved pet, a grandparent sibling, parent or friend, you will still need to be prepared for the big conversation. It may be that your child hasn’t experienced the death of someone or something they love before, but they are worried about death in some way. You will still find this article useful if that’s the case for you. It can often be helpful to initiate conversation around death with your child before they experience the death of a loved one. We know it’s not easy, so before you jump in, grab a cuppa then have a read of this blog post to arm yourself with what you need to know about talking to your child about death.

Before you start

The first thing to remember is that death is a part of life. All living things die eventually. Plants, animals, humans… we all die. We suggest you are as honest as possible while still remaining age appropriate for the child you are speaking with. If you have the opportunity, it’s best to think about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it before the conversation takes place. Consider some of the questions your child might ask you about death and dying (we have listed some examples of questions children ask about death later in this article) and have an answer ready. How you answer may depend on your own religious beliefs if you have any. If you don’t know something, it’s okay to admit that, but above all else be sensitive to your child’s emotions during this conversation. Find a comfortable place to have this important chat with your child – somewhere that is not only physically comfortable, but also somewhere they feel safe and loved. If you have the conversation about death sprung on you, do your best to remain as relaxed as possible. While showing some emotion is fine, it isn’t the time for big displays of emotion. Take your time.

Part of the reason such conversations can be so difficult is because we often avoid talking about things we find upsetting. Indeed, death is frequently a taboo subject, so if you feel like you will struggle with this conversation, practice with another adult first.

Use the word ‘death’

This might sound harsh to some, but by using the word death we help to avoid confusion. Think of the different words and phrases we use to say someone has died – passed, passed away, passed on, gone, lost, gone to sleep, gone to Heaven, being called home, gone to God… can you see how these euphemisms might cause a child confusion? We often use euphemisms for death to soften the conversation around loss. However, hospices recommend using the word died with children to avoid confusion and additional unnecessary grief later down the track when they realise their loved one who has died isn’t coming back. This is because a child’s understanding of death is very limited. Saying you ‘lost’ someone (for example, “We lost Grandma last night”) may lead a child to think they need to find that person rather than understand they have died and will not be coming back.

According to, “Using the word ‘death’ can avoid problems. If you say that someone has ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’, your child might be confused or frightened. For example, a child who is told that ‘Grandpa has gone to sleep forever’ might get scared of sleeping because they’re afraid they’ll never wake up.”

Your child needs you to help them to understand death, so it’s important to be as truthful as possible.

During the conversation

Raising Children also suggests that you explain death, especially when it comes to smaller children who simply might not know what death is.

We like this example given on their website:

“Younger children might not know what death means, so you might need to describe it and make sure they understand that death doesn’t go away. For example, ‘Dying means that Aunty Sal’s body has stopped working. She can’t breathe or move or cuddle you anymore’.

During the conversation, it’s important to use simple words that children will understand and be very clear about what you are telling them. For example:

“I have some very sad news. Aunty Sal died last night”. Ensure you pause for a moment to let your child take in this news.

Listen to what your child has to say and how they respond, ensuring you take the time to comfort them. Leave your expectations at the door when it comes to your child’s response; when it comes to death, children are like adults and react in a variety of ways. They may experience sadness, anxiety, shock, numbness, guilt, anger, loneliness, and every emotion in between. You might be met with a big emotional response from your child, or very little show of emotion at all. Depending on their relationship with the person, they might even feel relief. Every child is different. Also keep in mind that children sometimes show their emotions through their behaviour.

Your child is likely to have questions about death, and they should be allowed to ask them. Keep an open, honest and age appropriate dialogue, listen carefully and offer comfort and reassurance as needed. Stick to answering the question they have asked – it is best not to overwhelm them.

The following are some of the questions they may ask:

  • Why did he/she die?
  • Why did someone I love have to die?
  • How did he/she die?
  • Will I die too?
  • Will you/Mum/Dad etc die?
  • Where do dead people go?
  • What happens after someone dies?
  • What is death?
  • What happens to a body in the ground?
  • What is a funeral?

It’s okay to not know the answer. Try to be prepared to answer any questions your child might have, but if you don’t know then be honest. Perhaps respond with something like “I’m not sure about that, but I will try to find out”.

Children will often ask you to promise that you won’t die. Do not make this promise – we all die one day. Instead, it is best to reassure them that you intend to be with them for a long, long time, and that they will always be loved and cared for.

One thing to keep in mind, particularly with very young children, is that we need to avoid the assumption that death only comes to the elderly. However, we also want to ensure we don’t attribute death to someone being “sick” as this can lead to an assumption that any minor ailment might make them or someone they love die. To avoid this confusion, we would suggest explaining that only very serious illnesses and injury can lead to death rather than being vague.

During your talk to your child about death, it’s important to validate your child’s feelings. They need to know that it’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable or angry. It’s even okay to not know how you feel. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings with your child, too. For example, “I know you miss Grandpa, and you feel sad. I feel sad too. We love Grandpa very much and he loved us, too.”

When talking to children about death, it can also be helpful to talk about funerals, rituals and why we have them. Explain to them that this is a way to honour your loved one’s life and to say goodbye, and allow them to attend and participate if they would like to. It’s important to explain to them what will happen at the funeral – how your loved one will be talked about, you might pray, you will sing, that some people might cry and hug, and that people will be sad. Tell them the sorts of things people might say and why they might say them – for example, saying things like “my condolences” and “I’m sorry for your loss” are kind and polite things to say at a funeral. Share with them how you might respond to these by saying things like “thank you for coming today”. Reassure your child and tell them that they can hold your hand and stay close to you if they so wish.

After the conversation

In the days, weeks, and months after your loss, it’s important to continue to help your child to grieve and cope. It’s also important to remember the good things, too – not just how sad you both are and how much you miss them. Share memories and stories of the good times, the happy times, the funny things that happened when you were all together. Validate your child’s feelings and provide comfort but avoid dwelling in sadness for too long. Talk and listen for a few minutes, then do something to take your child’s mind off their grief. Do something together that you both find joy in – arts and crafts, playing a game, cooking, or going on an adventure are all good options.

When it comes to the funeral, giving your child a job to do can help them to deal with a difficult or unfamiliar situation, and helps them to feel a sense of connection. They might like to choose a song to be played at the funeral, help to collect photographs, read out a poem or make something to be displayed. Above all, do not force them to participate, but do allow them to choose to be involved if they would like to.

After the funeral, give your child time to mourn and let them know it is okay to cry. Be open with your own tears and emotions, as this is a way to model the fact that it is not weak to feel sad, cry and show emotion. According to the Child Development Institute, associating crying and showing emotion with weakness is something that should always be avoided.

Helping your child to deal with grief

Returning to a normal routine as soon as possible is vital in helping your child to deal with their grief and move forward. It is also important to allow the child to have the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one who has died. This may be by attending the funeral, however if they do not wish to go to the funeral then find another way them to pay their respects or help them to come up with a ritual of their own to honour the deceased’s life and to say goodbye.

As mentioned above, children sometimes use behaviour and play to deal with their emotions. Your child may work death into their play, and this is a way for them to process how they are feeling, so do not be alarmed by this or put a stop to their game.

It can also be helpful to give the child something to remember their loved one by. Having a memento can help them to feel like they still have a tangible connection with the person they have lost.

Above all, let your child stay as a child. When we ourselves are upset and grieving it can be easy to lean on our child for support. Remember to continue to be the adult in your relationship, and let the child be just that – a child.


We hope that you have found this article about talking to children about death useful. Click here to find out about the services we offer, and here to learn about who we are.

There are a great many resources available both in print and online, and we would like to acknowledge the following websites which we have used as references: