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How to Help Your Child Understand Death

How do you convey the concept of death to a child? After all, her favorite cartoon character repeatedly jumps off cliffs or gets run over by a car and jumps back up again.

But death is permanent, and this can be difficult for children to understand. You may be tempted to avoid discussing the topic altogether, but not talking about death can only cause a youngster to worry more about it and let his or her imagination conjure up the worst. Help your child understand death and cope with it now so he or she can better deal with life’s losses later on.

How to talk about death with your child depends on his or her age, personality and life experiences. Some general tips to get you started:

  • Be open. Let him or her know that there are no dumb questions. Listen carefully; don’t tell your child how to feel. Be prepared to keep answering the same question, such as, “When is Uncle Charlie coming back?” Just calmly explain that he isn’t. And if your child asks you a question you can’t answer, be honest and say, “I don’t know.”
  • Keep it simple. Skip the big words and difficult concepts. Explain that grandma’s body stopped working because she had lived a long time or that an accident made her body stop working and doctors couldn’t fix it.
  • Avoid using euphemisms. Don’t say things like “Grandpa went to sleep” or “Grandpa had to go away” to a young child who will take everything you say literally. Doing so can make your child fearful when bedtime rolls around or any time you have to go away.
  • Explain what “sick” means. Just saying “Your brother died because he was sick” may make your child worry whenever he or she gets a cold. Instead, explain that an illness has to be very bad for someone to die.
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