Expert Blog Compelling advice, stories, and thought-provoking perspectives straight from YourTango's lineup of Experts to you

What To Say When Explaining Death To Children


Many in Western cultures are uncomfortable using the words: dead, death or dying.What to say to kids

"Why did Grandpa go away? Was he mad at me?" "What happens when you die?" "Is Grandma going to cry like that forever?" "Can I go play now?"

When there has been an unexpected death of a loved one, adults often fail to realize that children can be confused by adult reactions. The emotional reactions by different members of a family may range from crying and hysteria to laughing. Children will know that something is wrong, but may not have the life experience to put snatches of information into the context of their thinking process. Children may also imagine that something has happened that will threaten their safety and security.

Provide age appropriate information

Many people in Western cultures are uncomfortable using the words: dead, death or dying. Instead, the event is described using euphuisms: passing over, passed away, and transitioned to the other side. Children, who may have seen bugs die, or dead birds, or may even have buried a pet, really have no frame of reference for "passing away."

Children need to be given information about the death, in a caring and calm manner, according to their age and understanding. Each child will then be able to absorb the reality and begin grieving and processing facts and feelings in his or her own way. Putting this information into a context he or she can understand will generate questions. This will give you the opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding and validate the child's feelings.


Take the time to explain

Children want to please the adults in their lives and watch for verbal and non-verbal clues to what will make the adults happy. If children sense their questions are annoying or upsetting, they will stop asking questions. Take the time to answer the questions and explain that each person grieves and misses a loved one differently. There is no right or wrong way. Encourage them to talk with others who are involved. Such conversations may even include sharing stories of happier times.

If it is your belief that Grandpa has gone to Heaven, explain how and why to the child. In our family, we used the analogy of the glove with the hand removed, to illustrate the spirit leaving the body. We then explain what happens to the body (glove) after the spirit or soul is separated.

Older children tend to be more interested in the actual process of death. They want reassurance that death is not usually so unexpected and that we, as parents, are not going to die soon. The younger ones are not sure whether they should be having fun with their cousins while the adults are crying.

Allow them to say goodbye

When is the right age to allow children to attend services? It depends on the temperament, age and maturity of the child as well as family expectations. Whether a child attends the actual funeral is a mutual decision made after a caring adult explains what will happen, who will be there, and what to expect. If the child was close to the deceased, he or she should be allowed to take some part in commemorating that person's life, perhaps by planting a tree or writing a letter.

Death is a part of life, but a child's first experience with losing someone can imprint how he or she will handle deaths and disappointments in the future. It is important to reassure children that they are loved and safe. Explain also that love and support does not end with physical life and memories of Grandpa will enrich a person forever.

What was your experience as a child with death?

How did you explain death to a child?

Please share your comments on our blog at http://www.AskAuntieArtichoke, a community of caring adults who want to build relationships of respect and honest communication.

You may reprint this article in your blog, ezine or offline magazine, but please keep the content and contact information intact. Thank you. (c) Judy H. Wright, family coach and parent educator

Judy H. Wright aka Auntie Artichoke is a family coach and parent educator. She has written over 20 books and many many articles on building relationships on respect and open communication. Please join us each Thursday for free teleclasses and radio shows . Sign up at You will be glad you did. For a free eBook on verbal and nonverbal communication, please go to

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.


Explore YourTango