How to Explain Death to Children?

Death is a complex and difficult to accept reality. But when we try to explain death to children, it can seem even more overwhelming. What do you need to know? Discover some recommendations.
How to Explain Death to Children?

Last update: 19 February, 2021

One of the most painful episodes in life is the loss of a loved one. Not all adults know how to deal with it, but have you ever wondered how to explain death to children or how they feel about it?

Children, at some point, may also experience anguish and may also experience grief at the death of a loved one.

It may be easier to explain this fact to the child if a pet or a somewhat distant relative passes away. However, if it’s a close relative, the panorama changes.

Children’s age and understanding of death

Studies on this subject indicate that the understanding of this fact changes according to the age of the child. For example, before the age of two, children may experience a sense of presence and absence.

However, at that age, the infant hasn’t yet developed the capacity for operational thinking. That is, they’re not yet able to elaborate a logical thought, nor do they have to capacity to integrate a concept such as death.

This is due, according to Piaget’s theory, to the fact that children of that age have a predominant sensory-motor development that is based more on reflexes. It’s normal if they’re apathetic towards this type of pain.

Other research on grief in children emphasizes that, up to the age of 7, children still think that death is temporary and reversible. In addition, they may show some kind of “magical thinking”, believing that some thought of their own has caused the event.

Of course, this topic is unsettling for families. They don’t always have the resources to explain or answer the many questions that children ask. Adults also look for a way to communicate what has happened, trying to prevent the children from feeling pain… Or at least to lessen it. It’s precisely at that moment when they understand that they don’t know what words to use.

A child crying on the stairs next to a stuffed bunny.
Very young children come to think that death is something temporary and reversible. That’s why it’s difficult to explain death to children when a relative dies.

Children and questions

If the child is less than five years old when the death occurs, they won’t be able to understand three basic factors:

  • Death is an irreversible fact and is definitive.
  • Vital functions in the deceased person are completely and permanently absent.
  • Death is universal; someday it will come to everyone.

Therefore, children may ask: “Why can’t I see grandpa anymore?“, “Does death hurt?“, “Is this forever?“, “Where is he?“, “Is he cold?“, “Can she hear us?“. These and other questions are questions we adults may even ask ourselves, only that children adapt them to their reality. What, then, should we adults say?

How to explain death to children?

Adolescents – and even pre-adolescents – can already understand the concept of death almost as well as adults. However, they may also be afraid of being abandoned, of losing a parent, and may even hide their feelings.

A child lying on the floor looking thoughtful.
Little ones may experience feelings that are difficult to understand in the face of the loss of a loved one. For this reason, we must constantly support them and answer their questions.

There are certain ways that adults can explain death to children:

  • Convey calm. If you don’t feel able to answer a question, you can tell the child that you’ll answer later because the question is very important and you want to postpone it in order to give a good answer.
  • The answers must be coherent.
  • Allow the child to express their fears in a safe, quiet place without interruptions.
  • Avoid phrases such as “She’s asleep” or “He went on a trip to the afterlife“, since this may develop a fear of sleeping or traveling.
  • Give clear answers.Being dead means we won’t be able to see that person anymore“. However, you can convey calmness by adding that “the memories will always be there.
  • Some parents offer religious explanations. However, young children may not understand these and need more specific answers as to the concrete reality of the person’s physical absence.
  • School-age children probably need help describing their feelings, so help them and take the time to listen and make clarifications.
  • Explain to the child that their actions didn’t cause the death of a loved one in order to avoid feelings of guilt.
  • Let the child know that not everyone who gets sick dies and reassure them about their health.
  • Finally, but most importantly for the child, is that you should apply these guidelines with love and affection, as this is what they need most.

Death is a very complex reality, so it’s not always easy to communicate it. So, if you feel you need support, don’t hesitate to consult a psychologist for guidance on how to cope with this event.

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