How to Talk to Children About Death

Children learn about grief from the adults around them, and anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.

“By being open, honest and loving, experiencing the loss of someone loved can be a chance for children to learn about both the joy and the pain that comes from caring deeply for other people,” said Joey Tucker, funeral director at Milward Funeral Directors.

“Because adults sometimes have trouble facing death themselves, it is often difficult to have open, honest discussions about death with children.”

Yet, according to Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., and an internationally noted author, educator and grief counselor, adults who can confront, explore and learn from their own fears about death can better help children grieve.

As a result, children can form “a healthy attitude toward both life and death.”

When a death occurs, children need to be surrounded by warmth, acceptance and understanding. Caring adults can provide this support.

How adults respond when a loved dies has a major effect on the way children react to the death.

Sometimes, adults avoid talking about the death, hoping to spare children some of the pain and sadness.

However, children need adults to confirm that it is acceptable to be sad and to cry, and that the hurt they feel now won’t last forever.

It’s important to create an atmosphere that assures children that their thoughts, fears and wishes will be recognized when a loved one dies.

This recognition includes the right to be part of planning the arrangements for the funeral.

“Having children involved in planning the funeral helps establish a sense of comfort and the understanding that life goes on even though someone has died,” Tucker said.

“It is important to help children understand that the purpose of the funeral is to comfort and support each other.”

Viewing the body of a loved one also can be a positive experience.

It provides an opportunity to say “goodbye” and helps children accept the reality of the death.

However, adults should not force a child to see the body.

Grief is complex. With love and understanding, adults can guide children through this vulnerable time and help make the experience a valuable part of a child’s personal growth.

Here are a few guidelines from Dr. Wolfelt:

  • Be a good observer. Ask questions before giving quick answers.
  • Be patient and available.
  • Provide reassurance.
  • Use simple and direct language.
  • Be honest. Don’t be afraid to express your own feelings about death.
  • Allow children to express a full range of feelings. Anger, guilt, despair and protest are natural reactions to the death of someone loved.
  • Listen to children.