Talking to your child or teen about death can feel overwhelming. These conversations can be challenging because they require a parent to navigate both the depth of their child’s understanding and emotional processing, and the complexity of their own relationship with death.
When talking about death, it becomes particularly important to remain self-aware, open, and patient in order to hear what you child is saying and respond in a helpful way.
Children have different understandings of what it means to die based on experience and developmental level – below are some tips for talking about death with different age groups.
Children under five generally do not understand that death is permanent and unavoidable. When talking to children this young about death, be as clear and factual as possible, and be prepared that they may not grasp the extent of what you are trying to convey.
- Explain simply what has happened, and relate it to what they have experienced (a fly, a plant, a pet, a character that permanently died in a movie).
- Tell your child what to expect, allow them to ask questions, and answer them as factually and concisely as possible.
- Allow emotions to arise if they do, and validate them by expressing that the emotions (whether sadness, anger, or fear) are okay.
- Help your child put a name to the emotions, and help them identify ways to feel better when they are ready. Allow their questions to dictate where or how deep the discussion might go.
This age group is likely to understand that death is permanent, but may not yet understand that it will happen to them. If they grasp the concept of death, try to offer helpful factual information about what has happened and what they can expect (that they will not see the person again, and what the funeral or the reactions of others might look like).
- Allow the discussion to be navigated by their questions.
- Questions from children of this age group may be surprising or complex, so try to stay clear, factual, and neutral when possible.
- This can be an opportunity to discuss your beliefs, as well as open the door to other helpful beliefs/concepts related to death.
As with all children, challenging conversations can also be an opportunity to build self-care skills by helping children identify emotions, and identify healthy ways to process/cope with those emotions.
With this group, the process of explaining death is essentially the same – explain facts and what to expect, leave room for questions, and validate/help with emotions.
- This is the general age range in which children begin to understand that they too will eventually die, and this can come with some more intense emotions and questions.
- Validate fears related to dying, and offer comfort authentically – whether it is reassuring them of the likely length of time before that happens, offering faith-based or spiritual beliefs, or acknowledging your own fear or how you choose to deal with it.
- These conversations are opportunities to shape not only the way your child thinks about death, but also how they think about the value of life. As much as you can, address them with an open heart and an understanding of their fear or sadness, whatever it looks like.
Teenagers most likely have a factual and realistic concept of death, but may encounter obstacles in emotionally processing death or understanding the reality of their own mortality.
Teenagers are in a developmental and neurological stage in which they understand the possibility and reality of death, but are less likely to fully apply that lens of understanding to themselves and their own lives.
Teens trying to mentally process a death that has occurred may demonstrate denial or defiance, or may withdraw and have difficulty expressing their internal state.
- When supporting a teen in understanding death, remain as nonjudgmental as possible, and try to identify if there is any information or resource that might be helpful.
- Be open and honest in the face of questions, offer what help you can, and ultimately, be a source of support.
- Death is challenging to confront, and while there may not always be a way to make it easier, sometimes the only thing needed is the knowledge that someone is there for us.
Resources Help Too
Many books have been written on the topic os death and grieving. These books range from children’s picture books to young adult novels. Depending on the age of your child, using books to help answer questions and provide comfort can be very helpful. The Fairfax County Parent Resource Center book database, gives parents the ability to search for books on the topic of grief and loss by any age group.
Reflect on Your Own Feelings
The way we teach our children about death will likely echo our own feelings about it. If you want to help your child through the uncertainty and anxiety of understanding death, the best thing you can do is address any death-related fears you might have – with yourself (through reflection or writing), someone you trust, or a therapist.
This is a timeless conflict of a conscious mind, and there are virtually limitless tools available. Whether you choose to confront your existential reality with faith, science, spirituality, or simply gratitude, try to share whatever helps you with your child.