How to Talk With Children About Death

I'm often asked how to talk with children about death. My answer includes one constant message and a two variables. This response is tailored for educators, but parents will also find it very helpful. 

My one constant message is that we must tell the truth. Recently I heard someone say that it's better to tell the truth and make someone sad, than to tell a lie and make someone happy. When children ask, we have to tell them the truth. And when they don't ask we have to be brave, do our best, and tell them what happened. Death is painful and nobody wants to hurt a child so we choose our words as carefully as we can. Our natural instinct is to want to protect and shield children from emotional hurts until they are older and stronger. But the only way children will get stronger is if we scaffold them through adversity. We can be by a child's side listening reflectively and encouraging, but we cannot take the pain away. We know we can't guard children from painful experiences. And we also know we promote growth by partnering, coaching and loving children through the tough times. Our hope is by allowing children to honestly experience death, grief and mourning, with adults as companions, they will gain the skills to handle life with greater competency.  

Another crucial reason for telling the truth when talking with children about death is grounded in trust. Children know when we are telling the truth or not, and they sense when we are masking the truth. We may mean well, but the energy we grown-ups expend by not telling children what has happened is futile, and sure to result in greater difficulty later as we try to repair the trust relationship with the child. Masking the truth and omission are big barriers to grief growth for children. Huge! 

Naturally, there are variables impacting the ways adults talk with children about death. I've chosen to address two variables as they relate to teachers and students. First, the amount of information you share with a child depends on his developmental level. A child's ability to understand death is often not associated with his chronological age; all children are unique. To help you determine where the child you support may be in his emotional and cognitive development in his response to death, use the content from this link that outlines Children's Developmental Responses to Grief by the Dougy Center:

As an educator, another variable to consider is your relationship to the child. The way a parent or family member talks with their child may vary greatly from the way a teacher or caregiver communicates. Truth remains a constant, but adults other than the grieving child's family and primary caregivers must be very careful not to overshare, not to disclose too many details about the death with the child. As educators, we must honor the choices family members make when communicating about the death with children. Your communication with the family will be key. Ask them what they would like you to tell their child when talking about the death at school. Honor the choices made by the family.

Finally, when talking with children about death keep it very simple.

  • Use clear, plain language, avoiding confusing euphemisms like, "lost" or "sleeping".
  • Affirm what death means, that it is when a person or pet's body parts stop working and that is why they died.
  • Give children your full attention and listen. Put away the cell and put the child first. 
  • Don't answer questions they do not ask. (Don't overshare.)
  • Young children will not understand death is permanent and the person or pet will not be coming back. You will have to gently remind them when they ask, "When will ___ be back?"

Please remember the greatest harm to a grieving child occurs when adults and children around them pretend nothing has happened. So please talk with the grieving child about their person who died. Be brave, trust yourself, and do your best. 

Copyright (2014) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.