How to Talk to Children and Teens About Death
Kids need to know the truth. Do not lie or distort the facts. However, you do not have to provide all the facts at once. Start with a few facts and give more as they ask for them so you do not overwhelm with information.
Kids need to know that their needs are going to be met and that you will be there for them.
You cannot promise that you will not die. Instead, ensure their safety. For older children and adolescents, reassure them who will be there to care for them.
Do not arrive at a funeral without telling a child what they will see and what to expect. Similarly, prepare a child for what they might see, feel, or hear in the coming days.
Empower children to make decisions about their participation in rituals and give opportunities for them to feel like they can contribute, as well as permission to change their mind about participating.
A child may need to go outside and play, be alone, or be with friends. Listen to what they need and help them feel safe coming to you when they’re ready.
A child may seem indifferent or express another surprising response. And that’s okay. Children process feelings differently, especially if they don’t fully understand the finality of death.
Children tend to be more concrete thinkers than adults, so it’s best to avoid vague and potentially confusing phrases such as “passed away,” “crossed over,” “lost,” “gone,” etc. Using realistic, concrete words like “dead” or “died” can help children process and understand.
Religious ideas are often abstract and confusing to a child and do not necessarily help them understand what “death” means. If you say, “Mommy has gone to heaven,” a child may be confused and wonder when Mommy will come back, how to get to heaven to see Mommy, or even think God is selfish for taking Mommy away. Explaining the concept and your beliefs about death takes time, and should be considered a process, not a one-time statement.