How To Discuss Death With Your Child


We knew it was coming. We didn’t know how old the hamster was when she was gifted to us, and we knew that hamsters only have a two to three year life span. Our daughter named her Juliet. So when the hamster began to slow down and show symptoms that something was wrong a few days ago, we began to talk about it. I’m sure glad that we did since today (sadly) Juliet died.

Death can be a tricky subject. It’s sad, depressing, and we have questions about it. We don’t even have the right words to say when death occurs. How many times have we heard someone say (or even said) to one who recently lost a loved one, Well, at least he’s/she’s in a better place, which almost sounds like we’re trying to erase the pain and grief felt by that loved one. Although it may be true, this may not be the best thing to say to those are grieving. How can we, then, help our children grieve when we don’t even know what to say to other adults who are grieving?

Some parents expect to have the talk (about sexuality) just once. It should, instead, be an ongoing talk as your learns and develops throughout childhood and adolescence. In the same way, we should repeatedly discuss grief with our children to ensure that they have the coping tools necessary to work through their own grief. To help guide you through these conversations, I’ve listed some grief guidelines below:

Understanding Grief: Grief comes in stages. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named the stages denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The stages don’t necessarily go in this order, but they do occur. Understanding these stages, and explaining them to children in an age-appropriate way, can be very helpful.

Grief in Children: There’s a great little book that I recommend to parents. It’s called Helping Children Grieve: When Someone They Love Dies by Theresa M. Huntley. It explains (briefly) how children at all developmental levels understand death. It also helps adults understand that a child’s grief may not look like adult grief. A child can have a parent die, be told about it, and continue playing as if the child was told that dinner is ready. It’s important to understand that children’s grief may come in spurts. They may not (and likely will not) live in a depressive state for a period of time, as an adult might. Their grief may be short-lived, recurring at unexpected times, or not show up until later in life. Children may ask questions that seem insensitive, and their understanding of the finality of death varies, depending on their age. This book explains these things and more.

Be Prepared: Death is all around us. We see dead animals on the side of the road, dead insects, and dead leaves in the Fall. We see death on the news, and we hear about death in real life. When the seasons change, talk about how the leaves die. When a senior adult at church dies, talk about how his/her body was tired and he/she died.

Tell the Truth: Movies, books, and other grown-ups try to impress on us that our deceased loved ones become angels (with wings) when they die, that they all go to Heaven (if they were good people, whatever that means), and that they accompany us and watch over us at all times. The Bible does not teach these things. Let’s stick with what the Bible teaches, not continue to spread images of what sounds nice. Here are some examples of what to say:

  • Grandpa died last night. We’re really going to miss him. His body is no longer here with us so we can’t see him anymore. But we know that Grandpa loved Jesus, so he is with Jesus now. Since we love Jesus, too, we’ll get to see Grandpa again one day when our bodies die.
  • Do you have any feelings that you’d like to talk about? If not, that’s okay. Your may feel fine now and feel sad another time when you think about Grandpa. If you need to cry, that’s fine. It’s also fine to laugh and play. We have lots of great memories with Grandpa, and it may be fun to think about those, too.
  • Do you have any questions for me? (If you don’t know the answers to these questions, don’t make anything up or explain what you’ve seen in movies as if it’s truth. Tell your child that you’re not sure but that you’ll find out and get back to him/her.)
  • You may see some of our family members crying. They’re sad because they miss Grandpa and won’t get to see him again on Earth. Everyone has different feelings, and it’s good to express our feelings. Crying can help get some of the sadness out.

Terminology: I try to use concrete terms with children. Die and death are not bad words. People often say things like passed away since they sound softer than using the words die or death. Be careful about explaining that a person was sick and died. Since children get sick (with colds, the flu, ear infections, etc.) and see their friends and family members get sick, they may worry that a person may die if he/she gets sick. If a person has a named terminal illness, use the term (like cancer).

Check In: Remember, we don’t discuss death with children once, wipe our brows, breathe a sigh of relief, and act as if the conversation is over. Our goal is to help our children develop coping mechanisms. So, check in occasionally. Ask things like this:

  • Have you thought about Grandpa lately?
  • How do you feel about Grandpa’s death? Do you have any questions for me?
  • Or simply begin the conversation by mentioning your feelings. I miss Grandpa. I sure wish that I could hug him, and let the conversation go as it may.

It has been said that parenting is not for the faint of heart. Parenting has so many joys, yet it also includes pain and difficult conversations. Death causes great pain, yet there is healing on the other side. Let’s do our best, as parents, to help our children learn how to grieve well so that they can experience healing on the other side.

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