Talking to children at an early age can provide them with the tools to deal with complex emotions and can even lead to healthier interpersonal relationships when they grow older. But talking to children about death is not an easy task for caregivers. We might be afraid of scaring children, or we may be grappling with our own death anxieties. We could even be coping with our own personal grief, and this can cause us to shut down and shield our children from our own pain.

So where do you begin? We have written in the past about resources for grieving children. Now we want to help you with some tips on how to talk about death with a child. Since death talk is what we are all about, here are some helpful guidelines and resources on how to talk to your child about death.

Talking to Children About Death, A Guide and Resources

Why Talk About Death with Children?

Talking about death to a young child can help them more than you may realize. Creating a safe space within your family to understand the cycle of life and death is beneficial to your child’s development and can prepare them for the inevitability of death. Using your creativity, supporting resources, and approaching this topic with an open mind and kindness can strengthen your bond and may even help you with your own questions about death and grief.

 When children are allowed to grieve they end up feeling less alone or isolated, and they learn that their emotions, and those of the people around them, are healthy and natural. 

Early and honest conversations about death can aid in children’s development. Normalizing death lessens the likelihood that children will imagine scenarios that will leave them more fearful or anxious. If a family is grieving a death, talking to children about mortality teaches them that it is okay to grieve and allows them to grieve alongside the important adults in their lives.

When children are allowed to grieve they end up feeling less alone or isolated, and they learn that their emotions, and those of the people around them, are healthy and natural. These conversations create a safe and exploratory space that children can lean on as they grow up.

When Should You Talk to Children About Death?

When should you talk to children about death? The short answer is: as soon as possible. The age of the child will factor in how you should approach the subject. An infant can’t understand the concept of death, but does understand that the adults around them are sad or angry. Children who are at preschool age may believe that death is reversible, non-permanent, and might make up creative theories about the causes of death. Elementary school-aged children begin to develop an understanding of the permanence of death, and they can grasp the correlation of events that lead up to someone dying, but death is thought of as something that only happens to other people. By the time they reach middle school they have a full understanding of the permanence and physical aspects of death, yet may still struggle with the more abstract concepts of death and dying. Once a child grows into a teenager they will come to a full understanding of the finality and impact of death on their lives and those around them, and can grasp more abstract concepts.

 Take advantage of your child’s curiosity and create a safe space for them to be able to ask you any questions that come to mind. 

Though age plays a large role on how to talk to a child about death, as a caregiver you know the child better than anyone else. Factors such a personality, experience, and mental development also have an impact on how a child can understand death and dying.

Pet Death

If there has been a recent death in your family, it is important to talk with your child as soon as possible. This includes the death of a pet, as it is often the first time children experience death in their life. This can prevent children from learning about the death of their companion from someone else (possibly in an unfavorable way), or learning about death for the first time later in life.

Even if there has not been a recent death in their life, it is natural for your child to ask about death. Death is all around us. It can be seen in cartoons and tv shows, in video games, and even on school playgrounds when kids squish bugs. Children are naturally curious, and a child as young as 3 years old can start asking about mortality. There is a good chance that your child will ask you about death before you may be ready to talk to them about it. Take advantage of your child’s curiosity and create a safe space for them to be able to ask you any questions that come to mind.

Starting the Difficult Conversation About Death

But what happens if they are not asking questions, or there has not been a death in the family? Then you can still create a safe space to start a conversation around mortality. Remember that age, personality, and temperament will factor into how you talk to your child. You could set aside some time when you know they will be engaged, such as reading an age appropriate book, or watching a movie or TV show that contains themes of death and dying. These activities are wonderful ways to introduce children to death and grief on their terms and can act as a catalyst for conversation.

Make sure you are always direct, clear, and honest. Tell your child “today we are going to talk about death, do you know what that is? Do you know what it means when someone dies?”

Make sure your child is comfortable and allow them to end the conversation on their terms. These types of conversations must create a safe space, and part of that is allowing your child to set their own boundaries. Sometimes a child will not want to talk, and that is okay too. You can ask them “does this make you sad/scared? It is okay to feel that way. Do you want to stop talking about it? We can talk about it later when you want to talk.” You can always try again at another time, or your child might bring it up on their own at another time. When they do bring it up again make sure you don’t shut down their questions, and be patient with them.

Recommended Children’s Books, Movies and Television Series to start the Conversation about Death

coco Talking to Children About Death, Guide and Resources

There are a wealth of books for teaching children of all ages about death. Some of our favourite reading lists include Brain Picking’s magical list of titles, and the reading list curated by What’s Your Grief. If your child is more interested in TV shows and movies, pay attention to what they are watching. If a character dies (hello every Disney film produced), use it as a teachable moment to have an honest conversation. Ask your child: “What do you think happened to Simba’s dad?”

You could even plan a movie night and curl up with one of the incredible Pixar movies that explore death such as Soul or Coco, both of which are magical explorations of death and grief designed for children (and people of all ages). There are some wonderful options for age appropriate movies out there.

The Huffington Post put together a list of guiding questions and recommended movies if you are wondering where to start. If you want something shorter to grab their attention, Fatherly has a wonderful list of children’s television shows with episodes where a character dies. However you engage with your child it is important to know how to navigate the conversation so they feel comfortable and safe.

Do’s and Don’ts When Talking to a Child About Death

Talking to Children About Death, Guide and Resources

Below is a list we created to help you as you talk to your child about death and dying.

  • Do not use euphemisms like “they passed away/crossed over” or we “lost them.” A better way to say it is “they died/they are dead.”
  • Do provide a direct and concrete definition of death. When you are explaining the act of dying this is very important as children struggle with abstract thinking. Crossroads Hospice shares this wonderful definition: “When someone dies, their body stops working; they don’t need to eat, drink, or breathe anymore. It is not like sleeping. Once someone dies, they are dead forever and cannot come back.”
  • Do not chastise the child with phrases like “toughen up,” “be a man/woman/grown up,” or “suck it up.” It is better to validate any emotions they have with phrases like “it is okay to be sad” or “it is okay to cry.”
  • Do not make up answers. It is better to say “I don’t know.” A lot of children will pick up on when we are deceiving them and it can lead to more confusion.
  • Do include your own beliefs, but remember children can take things literally. Avoid saying the person is up in heaven watching them, as they will think they are literally in the sky and this can cause confusion. Try phrases like “No one knows for sure, but I believe..”, or “I wonder about that too…”
  • Do not explain too much at one time. Share with your child at a rate they can handle, and take things slowly.
  • Do not brush off their questions even if they make you uncomfortable. It is better to answer simply and clearly.

Whatever a child’s age, it is important to be clear, direct, and honest. They may listen and understand when you first talk to them, and then a week or so later they are confused again—be patient. Depending on their age and temperament, doing an art project while talking or playing can help them process the conversation. You can even use this as a moment to learn something new about death with your child, or ask them what they think to engage them more in the conversation.

If you are still not sure how or where to begin, we recommend trying Circle Space’s free Kid Kits that include guiding questions, age appropriate videos, reading lists, and activities you can help you engage with your child. They offer one kit about the cycle of life and death, and one about dealing with terminal illness and dying.

Final Thoughts

Being scared and unsure of talking with children about death is normal. You may not know all the answers, and this might make you afraid to hurt or confuse your child. Trust that your child feels safe with you and that they can handle this better than you may realize.

When you talk to a child about death, consider their age, maturity, and unique personality traits and temperament. These will all factor into how you approach and talk to your child. Remember that your family values and beliefs around living, illness, death and grief also play a large role in how you talk to your child.

When in doubt, revisit the episode from Sesame Street where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died. This episode is a masterclass on how to talk to a child about death.

Rachel Osolen
Rachel Osolen is a Staff Writer at TalkDeath. She is a seasoned writer with publications in poetry, academia, and short stories. She has a BA in English from Dalhousie University and an MLIS from the University of Alberta where her research focused on Digital Archives and Online Memorials; specifically The Hart Island Project. Her current writing and research focuses on Death Positivity, History, Folklore, and Culture.


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