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How to tell children of a death

The first temptation of parents explaining a death to a child is to paint a prettier picture of what has happened. But saying an angel came and took the person away may have the child looking out the window for angels. Saying the person went a way for a long time may have them feeling abandoned and confused about their grief.

So, honesty is generally the best policy for dealing with children. The truth about death is hard for even adults to face, but it's best for children to hear it from the beginning so they can start to grieve.

What should you tell your child?

In general, what you'll want to tell your child will be affected by the circumstances of the death, your family's religious background and by the child's maturity and age, so we will provide only a guide.

Some people will tell you that you shouldn't tell your children, that you should wait until later or make up a story. But children are smarter than some people give them credit for. They can pick up on emotions and the grief and body language of those around them.

They also might overhear conversations. The death may seem much scarier for them if they know they were lied to about it. They will figure out that something has happened; they may just be more confused and frightened by not knowing exactly what.

Make sure they know the truth

They will have some idea of what is happening, and the best plan is to take control of what that idea is and make sure it's the truth.

Start the conversation off by acknowledging that you are sad, and that they may be sad for a little while. If they just don't know why everyone's depressed, they may think that they caused it somehow or that their grief will last forever.

Things you could say:

"A very sad thing has just happenedā€¦"
"Mommy and daddy are sad becauseā€¦"

First provide a clear message as to what death is. Explain that dead people's bodies don't work anymore and can't be fixed. They cannot see, hear, move or feel. The person does not eat, drink or use the bathroom any more.

You can refer back to these ideas when children ask questions like:

  • Why is the body cold? "Because bodies only stay warm when they're working, such as our bodies."
  • When will he come back? "He won't, because people who die don't come back."
  • Is he sleeping? "No, we only sleep when our bodies work. That's just resting, which is different from death."
Explaining different types of deaths:
  • Old age: "When a person gets very, very old, his body wears out and stops working." A child may see every adult as "old," thus fearing that his or her parents will die of old age soon. Distinguish the two.
  • Terminal illness: for explaining diseases such as cancer or AIDS, you need to explain that they're a different kind of sick than when mommy gets a cold. "Because it was one of those diseases that can't be fixed, (the loved one) got very, very sick and his body stopped working."
  • Accident: tell the child that a terrible thing happened, then describe it quickly, such as "a bad car accident." Tell him or her that the loved one's body "was badly hurt and couldn't be fixed. His body stopped working and he died."
  • Miscarriage: explain a little bit about how babies grow and their fragility in the womb. "Sometimes when a baby first starts to grow, something happens that makes it stop growing and the baby's body just stops working. We don't know why and it wasn't anyone's fault."

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Children: helping a child cope with death section helpful too.

Visit our Amazon store to find grief books for children.

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