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What to Tell your Child about End of Life (Death)

Updated on December 27, 2014

It’s the one of the toughest and most sensitive conversations that you will have with your child. Death has finality to it and you need to convey this reality to your child without frightening him. Here are some tips to How to answer your child’s most persistent questions about bereavement.

Talking to children about death is the hardest thing to do. Most parents instinctively skirt the issue and try to protect their child from the misery that death unavoidably brings. Yet it is this inevitability that also forces them to face the issue sooner or later. The innocent child, who is singing about squishing bugs in his nursery rhymes without flinching, will grow up into a 10-year-old who will have questions, concerns and will agonize over death and dying regardless of whether it is a pet or a loved one. Parents therefore, are faced with the dilemma of how and when to talk about the unavoidable topic.

Talk to your child
Talk to your child

Children smarter than we think

However much we bubble-wrap our kids, the fact remains that they are aware of death from a very young age. The extent of awareness varies according to age. A preschooler will casually hold up a dead moth for all to see, while a seven-year-old may store a pretty dead butterfly in a box or organize a small burial for it. In their fairytale world, it is the wicked witch that dies and Snow White is brought back to life by her prince charming. As they grow older the finality of parting finally hits home and kids, taking their cues from observing their elders mourn, start to ask questions, grieve and react negatively to death.

Talking about death is taboo in most cultures as it is believed to be a harbinger of bad luck. It does not help and it will leave them even more confused and perplexed. Because when children are looking for answers, avoiding the topic will only serve to further fuel their worries.

Introduce the concept naturally

Birth and death are a natural part of the circle of life and that is how nature intended them to be. Children can be gradually introduced this reality by bringing to their attention the drooping flower or the dead insect that they come across. We don’t have to wait for a tragedy to happen to prepare children for this eventually.

Talk about it and discuss it as logically as possible. At a young age, the child is not looking for a grand philosophy about dying and death. All the child needs is a simple explanation that satisfies him. Just like the child accepts that the bus moves because its wheels go round and round, he will be open to an explanation that everyone dies and leaves and not associate dying with being a permanent separation. What is important is to talk openly so that children are comfortable with the concept, accept this reality and are uninhibited in expressing their own feelings.

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Preparing them for the worst

Experts warn against giving young children answers that instill fear in them. They cite examples of children having sleep issues because they connect sleep with death after being told that their grandmother is sleeping while in fact she has passed away.

If possible, children can visit ailing family members, spend time with them and be a part of the process of their being unwell. By including them in what is happening the children are aware that things are not going well. It prepares them better to cope with the sad eventually of losing a loved one. They are then aware that grandma passed away because she was not responding to treatment or that she was suffering in pain and death has eased her suffering.

Lend them an ear, answer their queries

The most important thing for adults to do is to listen to what children have to say. Children have real concerns. Give kids an opportunity to vent out their frustrations, thoughts and worries. Make them feel that you empathize with them and allay their fears. For this to happen, it is important for parents themselves to overcome their own fears and inhibitions.

Answering the questions that kids raise as honestly as possible is the best thing that an adult can do. Assure them that it is natural to feel sad or cry. Give them the age appropriate explanations to why things happened the way they did. You may have to answer the repetitive questions. Take them as a clue, to their state of mind and see how you can distract or offer more solace. Talking about the person who has died helps kids vent out their feelings. Children may react with guilt, anger, regret or even indifference depending on their understanding of death. And the support being offered depends on the age, understanding and individual emotional need.

Finding the right words is the most difficult part of consoling a grieving child. Listen to the child’s question. It is through questions that a child looks for reassurance and sends out messages asking for help. Counter question the child and take your cues from the answer. Ask him what he thinks and channel the conversation to a logical, sensible and comforting solution.

Give them confidence

Irrespective of their age, children require help to deal with the trauma that death brings. Confused and worried children need the confidence that they are not alone in their grief. A compassionate adult who makes them feel that they are in it together, helps pull children out of their grief faster. Involve the child in age-appropriate activities.

They may want to draw or color a card for the family of the deceased. Older kids may express their feelings through writing poetry or find solace in a hobby like cooking, gardening, etc. Most children are not able to verbalize their thoughts therefore it becomes all the more important to look out for telltale signs of unresolved misery and fear.

Children cope better if they are allowed to participate in funeral

Attending funerals

The New York Times recently reported that there has been a noticeable shift in the attitude of keeping children away from funerals. More and more children are being involved in the mourning process in the belief that children cope better if they are allowed to participate. Depending on the age of the child, children can take part in certain rituals but only after their meaning has been explained to them. To pull kids into a heart rending atmosphere of loud, public display of grief may actually scare and scar them. It is always better that if children are involved, the mood has to be that of controlled and non-disruptive expression of grief.

In case of the decision is to leave children out of the funeral, it is of utmost importance to leave them with a responsible adult, who can talk to them, comfort them by answering queries and not feed them inaccurate and frightening stories about death.

Celebrate a life well lived

Funerals in western cultures are distinctly different from what happens in our part of the world. The funeral ceremonies are somber and loved ones come up to talk about and share happy memories about the diseases. Such events are marked by shedding of tears and smiles at the memory of happy, funny and meaningful anecdotes about the deceased. It also sets the mood to talk about the deceased person in a normal manner in the future.

Teach your child to remember loved ones with happy memories and talk about it as routinely as possible without brushing it under the carpet. Giving your child instructions like, ‘Don’t talk to grandma about grandpa otherwise she will cry’ will only serve to instill fear in the child about unconsciously causing misery to the grandmother.

The child may bottle up emotions and conjure up incorrect ideas in the mind. Instead, letting the child talk naturally will help the child in releasing pent-up thoughts. Don’t make talking about the deceased a taboo topic but a time to remember a life well lived.

Be a role Model to Your Child
Be a role Model to Your Child

Being a role model in grief

However heartbreaking the occasion, adults have to be role models in forming a child’s perception about death and how to face it. Letting the kids see you mourn is the modern-day mantra. Vicky Ott who handles bereavement services feels that there has been a change in the mindset of society in the last 25 years.

No longer are children regarded as ‘invisible grievers’ who are so resilient that they will bounce back after bereavement. Children watch adults and imitate their behavior. How adults respond to grief helps to manage the child’s reaction to it. Letting mourning and grieving be a part of the normal healing process helps kids develop a normal perception of the situation in the process parents should not suppress their own angst.

Adults suffer too, and they need to express their sorrow in a healthy manner as much as a child. Our kids are watching and learning from us how to handle grief, and stifling it is not healthy for anybody concerned. Another lesson that children learn from us in times of sorrow is how to react to people who are grieving. For children, observation is the key to their handling other people compassionately when they are faced with the tragedy of death.

Kids attending the funeral
Kids attending the funeral

Keeping the school informed

While you build a supportive, healthy and caring atmosphere around your distressed child, it is important to keep the school and teachers in the loop as well. School is where your child spends the better part of the day.

The last thing you would want your children to be exposed to when they return to school after a death in the family is to be questioned about why they missed school or why they look wan and tired. If the school is aware in advance of the circumstances, it can not only handle the situation better, but can provide a reassuring atmosphere as well.

Often parents are so involved in their own misery that they miss the clues and teachers are the first people to notice changes in a child’s behavior. Your child may demonstrate signs of unresolved worries by withdrawing, not eating well or display irresponsible classroom behavior. A teacher in the know can then give support by reaching out to the affected student in the class and even bring in the school counselor for further support if required.

Children are very perceptive and listen, observe and pick up messages from grown up around them. When faced with the specter of death, parents have the onerous job of creating a scaffolding of comfort and reassurance to case the anxiety among their children. Children who are trained to look at death as natural and are able to communicate and get answers to their fears are more likely to mourn their loss in a healthy manner.


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    • sriramapriya profile image

      sriramapriya 4 years ago from India

      Thank you very much babynology, talfonso and pstraubie you liked it. Am glad you all like it. Thank you for your appreciations.

    • babynology profile image

      babynology 4 years ago from New York

      Thanks for sharing

    • talfonso profile image

      talfonso 4 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      Very informative Hub - my recent funeral to date was my own grandmother's. Most of the kids attending it were well-behaved. I am one of her grandkids, and the youngest of them all was 17 when attending the services (viewing, Requiem Mass, and burial, and this was the first time I actually saw a real burial taking place at our family plot of the mausoleum).

      I watched a video on Babble about a mother who was given a permission slip for her then 7-year old daughter to attend an in-school funeral for her classmate and her aunt who died in a car accident. She checked the option for having her be in the classroom supervised because she couldn't be there at the time.

      The reason why stemmed from experience. When she was young, her grandmother died and she and her younger brother attended her funeral. The latter was traumatized by the sight of her body.

      I appreciate what she did, but if I were her, I'd take this Hub to heart. I'd first call the school if there's an open casket involved, and then explain what death is. Then, I'd explain what to expect at a funeral, in-school or not. Then I would have given my daughter a choice whether to attend it.

      What a great Hub on the topic. I'm voting it up and sharing it.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      How we approach this topic will obviously depend on what we think and feel on this topic too. I was four when my sister died and I went to the funeral which was an open casket. My sister was beautiful as she lay there and my Daddy held me in his arms and told me to wave good by to her. And I did. And I had no fear, no horror associated with death I do believe because of that simple action

      You have shared some important suggestions.

      Angels are on the way to you this afternoon. ps

    • jabelufiroz profile image

      Firoz 4 years ago from India

      Wonderful parenting tips. Voted up.