Talking with Children About Death
A General Guide for
Understanding Developmental Stages
children mostly see death as temporary, reversible and impersonal. In
stories they read or watch characters will often suddenly rise up alive again
after being totally destroyed. It’s not surprising they don’t understand,
yet it is appropriate for their age level to think this way.
the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to see that all living
things eventually die and that death is final. They tend to not relate it to
themselves and consider the idea that they can escape it. They may
associate images with death, such as a skeleton. Some children have
nightmares about them.
nine through to adolescence, children to begin to understand fully that death
is irreversible and that they too will die some day
Talking About Death
With Preschoolers or Young Children
people feel challenged when approaching the subject of death to preschoolers
and young children. They in particular need brief and simple explanations. Using
concrete and familiar examples may help. For example, death may be made more
clear by explaining it in terms of the absence of familiar life functions –
when people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel any more; when
dogs die they do not bark or run anymore; dead flowers do not grow or bloom any
learn through repetition so they may need to go over this quite a few
times. A child may immediately ask more questions, others may be silent,
then wish to revisit the subject again later. Children sometimes get
confused with what they hear so it is important you check their understanding
by revisiting the subject at appropriate times.
time passes and children have new experiences, they will need further
explanations and sharing of ideas and thoughts.
may take time for a child to comprehend fully the ramifications of death and
its emotional implications. A child who knows that Uncle Tom has died may still
ask why Aunt Julie is crying. The child needs an answer. “Aunt Julie is crying
because she is sad that Uncle Tom has died. She misses him very much. We all
feel sad when someone we care about dies.”
are also moments when we have trouble “understanding” what children are asking
us. A question that may seem dreadfully thoughtless to an adult may be a
child’s request for reassurance. For instance, a question such as, “When will
you die?” needs to be heard with the realization that the young child perceives
death as temporary.
the permanency of death is not yet fully understood, a child may think that
death means separation, and separation from parents and the loss of care
involved are frightening.
cared for is a realistic and practical concern, and a child needs to be
reassured. Possibly the best way to answer a question is by asking a clarifying
question in return: “Are you worried that I won’t be here to take care of you?”
If that is the case, the reassuring and appropriate answer would be something
like, “I don’t expect to die for a long time. I expect to be here to take care
of you as long as you need me, but if I did die, there are lots of people to
take care of you. There’s Daddy, Aunt Laura and Uncle John or Nan.”
is important to check which words you use when discussing death with your
kids. Some children confuse death with sleep, particularly if they hear
adults refer to death with one of the many euphemisms for sleep – “they died in
their sleep”, “eternal rest”, “rest in peace.” Resulting from this
confusion, a child may be afraid of going to bed, incase they don’t wake up
Similarly, if children are told that someone who died “went away”, brief
separations may begin to worry them. Grandpa “went away” and hasn’t come back
yet. Maybe Mummy won’t come back from the shops or from work. Therefore, it is
important to avoid such words as “sleep”, “rest”, or “went away” when talking
to a child about death.
avoid confusion with preschoolers and very young children, it helps to explain
that only very serious illness may cause death. When they hear that
sickness was the cause of death, we don’t want them to assume that minor
ailments are a cause for major concern.
a child associates death only with old age, they can become very confused when
they learn that young people can die too. It is important to explain
that most people live a long time, but some don’t. However we do
expect that we will live a very long time (always reassure them)!