How to Tell a Child That Their Sibling Died

To tell a child that his or her sibling died, it's important to first probe the child's ideas about death. Then, speak the truth.
How to Tell a Child That Their Sibling Died
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 14 June, 2023

Telling a child that their sibling died is no easy task. In many societies and cultures, death is still a very taboo subject. However, the truth is that all of us will go through this experience, both personally and indirectly, through the death of loved ones.

Death causes anguish, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s even more distressing to have a veil that hides it. When that happens, the fantasy can generate even more fear and questions. Is it really so bad? Is that why nobody wants to talk about it? Do all people suffer when they’re dying?

Especially in the case of children, it’s advisable not to underestimate how children feel about death and to offer information appropriate to their age and understanding. But the subject should not be ignored or avoided. Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at how to tell a child that his or her sibling died.

How children understand death according to their age

Children’s idea of death becomes more complex as they get older, experts say. While this is influenced by personal experiences, society, and culture, knowing what is appropriate or expected at each age can serve as a tool for approaching the subject:

  • From 0 to 2 years: There is no concept of death as such, but they are able to perceive absence from 6 to 8 months years of age. At around 2 years of age, with advances in socialization, language, and autonomy, they begin to be more aware that “that important someone” is not there or is no longer coming. The idea of loss becomes more vigorous.
  • From 3 to 6 years: Death is temporary and reversible. They believe that their caregivers will not die. They do not finish elaborating on the idea, so it’s logical for them to wonder if their grandfather can still hear them, for example.
  • Ages 6 to 10: They may think of death in biological terms. For example, it simply means that a person stops breathing. They tend to understand its universal and irreversible character. They may also already show interest in the rites associated with death and farewell.

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Tips for telling a child that their sibling died

Death is distressing. But just as distressing can be the beliefs or fantasies that arise around it. For this reason, it’s best to find out what happens to children and accompany them through this process.

Let’s take a look at some things to keep in mind to tell a child that his or her sibling died.

Give them space to talk about the subject

As with other subjects, it’s recommended that we adults provide guidance by offering accurate and reliable information. In this way, based on who is asking, this also allows us to regulate the information.

Moreover, if it’s about the death of a sibling, hiding it is not an option. Nor is it suggested to ignore the subject or not give it the place it deserves. Talking about it and mourning are part of the management of emotions in children.

For example, if a child asks why his or her sibling is in the hospital and has not come back, the logical thing to do is to offer true information, appropriate to his age and understanding. Avoid saying things like “keep playing, don’t worry about it” or pretending that nothing has happened.

Respond to their concerns

When we talk to a child about the death of his or her sibling, we must listen attentively and actively about things that may be of interest to the child. For example, she or he may be interested in whether his sibling suffered or whether death hurts. Or, if his or her sibling is gone forever, they may be curious to know how this affects them because they fought a lot or they hid their toys.

Therefore, depending on the child’s age, his or her concerns will be much more concrete and less symbolic. Under the adult gaze, it may sometimes seem that, with certain questions, they do not take the subject seriously.

However, this is not so, but really just corresponds to the senses and constructions that are part of their own world. Rather than judging them, our role should be to bring calm and alleviate guilt, if there’s any.

Explain death with the situations and experiences they have within their reach

Depending on the age, one way to tell a child that his or her sibling died has to do with making the idea close and accessible to previous experiences.

Take the following example, for instance: “Do you remember the time your pet died? How did you feel? It was ugly and you got sad, but there are days when you remember how you played with her and you are happy and sometimes you get upset, but you have her in your heart, and that makes her very close to you”.

In this way, we not only present the absence that a death implies, but we also show that emotions can be changing. At the same time, we give some reassurance, knowing that the person will always be with us in heart and memory.

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Other tips for talking to children about death

Apart from having to tell a child that his or her sibling died, it’s possible that death will come up again as a topic of interest at some other time. Some additional recommendations are as follows:

  • In talking with children about death, it’s also important for adults to review our own ideas and feelings about it.
  • We can start by asking children what they think and know about death. This will give us a guideline about what they heard and also the associated fears. These “myths” serve as a gateway to talk about the subject and provide correct information.
  • Under no circumstances should we lie. We should avoid ideas such as “he went on a trip and now he is in the afterlife”. This could lead to a negative feeling about travel. It’s difficult for them to understand the metaphor of the afterlife and we generate more confusion. Keep in mind that, at certain ages, children interpret information in a literal way.
  • Avoid extremes. When we talk about death with children, there are answers that, although true, are difficult to assimilate because of their age. It’s a better idea to offer nuances that serve as a space of tranquility. For example: “It’s true that at some point we’re all going to die, but it’s also true that you will always have someone to take care of you and love you”.
  • In the case of children, it’s important to make it clear that death isn’t reversible and that it’s not temporary. Otherwise, they may interpret that if they start behaving better, their sibling will want to come home. Or that maybe their sibling will come back for the next birthday.

Children have their own theory about death

Even if they have never asked us, death exists in the children’s universe. We can prove it through their games, when they act out dying or killing.

In other words, we should not be afraid of the idea of children asking or talking about death, since it’s a natural and universal fact. What makes the difference in their coping is the closeness and the company we can offer during the mourning, which will not only be from the parents, but also from the educational institutions, as some experts point out.

The same logic operates with children as in the adult world: it’s one thing to tell a child that his or her sibling died and quite another to be able to understand it in practice. No matter how much information we offer, children need to understand the reality and this is loaded with emotion.

The process has its own timing.

It’s also necessary to accept that children may take steps backward with respect to the achievements and progress they have made. They may need to sleep with the light on or even ask to sleep with their caregivers. The key is to accompany them on this process so they know they’re not alone.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.