By: Caitlin Dillaway, LCSW
As parents and caregivers, we face many challenges throughout the journey of raising children – some expected and others less so. One area that proves difficult for almost everyone is figuring out how to talk to children about death. This becomes particularly evident when faced with a sudden death of a loved one or navigating a family member being placed on hospice care. While this can be an emotionally trying time for all involved, it is important that we have the tools to provide children with the best possible chance to process loss in a healthy and age-appropriate way.
Some ways to prepare a child for a loved one’s death:
- Be open and honest when talking about death. You may withhold scary or upsetting details related to the death, but in general, try not to use euphemisms, create false stories, or be overly vague.
- Keep information concrete and factual. Invite other adult family members who are close to the child to adopt the same language in order to avoid confusion. Each circumstance and child are different; therefore, the content presented here should be adjusted according to your child and their specific needs. Pre-school aged children begin to understand basic concepts of death and may start to ask questions about dying. They may think of death as reversible or temporary at this age. Children typically begin to understand the finality of death around age 7 (and sometimes as early as 5).
- Encourage open dialogue. Ask the child what they know about death and dying already. They may have some understanding based on favorite movie characters or stories. If they are comfortable, allow them to explain what they believe death means.
- Use examples from nature and the biological cycle of life. Death is part of life and including examples such as how a leaf forms on a tree, grows on the branch, and ultimately falls from the tree, may help provide a foundational understanding that all living things die.
- Reinforce your child’s sense of safety during this time. Loss is inherently sad and can often be scary and confusing. Your child will look to you to determine how to regulate their feelings. It is okay for them to see you cry*. Let them know that while you may be sad, they are safe. Tears are a very normal and healthy part of grieving.
- Normalize the variety of emotions you are experiencing (that your child may be feeling as well). Let them know that people can experience a wide range of emotions surrounding a loved one’s death and there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel.
- Take your cues on pacing during these discussions from the child. If they are expressing discomfort or appear unsettled, allow them to take their time as they may need to process things on their own before returning to the conversation. This conversation does not need to be forced and should be an ongoing dialogue.
- Ask “What” questions. After speaking about death, rather than ask if the child has questions, say, “What questions do you have for me about [insert loved one’s name/death/dying/funerals, etc.]?” They may not have questions formed immediately; however, let them know that you are ready to answer questions whenever they may come up. If you do not know the answer to their question, own it! You can say something along the lines of, “That’s a really good question. I’m not sure. Maybe we can find the answer to that together.” You may even say, “I’m not sure how to answer that right now. I will let you know after I’ve had some time to think about it.”
Other helpful tips for preparing a child for a loved one’s death:
Should children attend funerals?
Children should be included in funerals and memorials when possible. We have a tendency to assume that we should shield children from these events. Research shows that this is not actually the case. Statistics tell us that children who are given the opportunity to attend rituals surrounding death and whom are properly prepared ahead of time, have better outcomes than those who are not allowed to attend. This being said, for a child with a history of anxiety or who tends to ruminate on things, special consideration should be taken.
Some ways support a child during this process may be:
- Normalize tears/people crying and even laughing at funerals or memorial services. People are experiencing a lot of big feelings at these events and their tears (or laughter) are part of processing the loss.
- Talk about what they might expect to see: A casket, their loved one’s body (depending on open or closed casket), specific cultural rituals, people wearing dark clothing, etc.
- Request to arrive early in order to show the child around. Allow them to ask questions and help them become familiar with their surroundings prior to others’ arrival.
- Keep age, emotional maturity level, and time in mind. Younger children should not be expected to sit for the entire service (wake, funeral, memorial). Consider bringing a babysitter to play with the child outside or in a separate area, after they have had a chance to be part of the service. Similarly, neurodivergent children may require breaks and space to regulate their nervous system. It may be helpful to bring a craft, sensory tools, or quiet activity if children need to be present for longer periods of time. Bring snacks.
- Give them an opportunity to take part in planning aspects of, or contributing to, a memorial or service surrounding the deceased loved one. Children may be included more individually in rituals surrounding death. Give them an opportunity to take part in planning aspects of, or contributing to, a memorial or service surrounding the deceased loved one. Children may choose to write a letter to their loved one. You can ask if they would like their letter or another small totem to be tucked in with individual prior to the burial. Older children and teenagers may be included in a reading at a funeral; Give them options from which readings to choose. Some children may refuse to be part of this process. While gentle encouragement and support are fine, a child should not be forced to take part in a service if they are not comfortable.
- Provide another opportunity for a child to say goodbye in their own way if they do not want to attend a funeral or other end-of-life celebration. This may look like lighting a candle and honoring the individual privately, writing a poem, visiting a special place that holds a memory of their loved one, or creating a scrapbook or video slideshow of special memories. Children should be able to memorialize their loved one in a way that feels comfortable and meaningful to them.
- Spend time reflecting on warm memories. While endings are difficult and loss is painful, death does not have to be entirely negative. Laugh about silly or funny things your loved one did during their life, look at photographs of your loved one with the child, and talk about where and when the photo was taken.
- Continue to include them in conversations even as time passes. Grief does not end after the funeral is over. The process of mourning and healing will be an ongoing journey. Consider engaging your child in activities like making a memory box.
- Take care of yourself. This may be the most important piece of advice. Your child will greatly benefit from you taking time to process your own grief. Rely on your support system, ask for help, delegate less important details to others, and engage in healthy coping strategies.
- Seek therapy to help you or your child process grief. Seek therapy to process your own grief if you’re struggling. If your child appears to be struggling extensively with a loss, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional for support.
Keep in mind, funeral directors are often excellent resources for assisting families navigating this process as they are familiar with how to accommodate children and their varying needs.
For more information on children attending funerals, please see the following resources:
Some signs that a child may need additional support:
- Withdrawing from others or isolating themselves on an increasing basis
- Not participating in typically enjoyed activities
- Frequent crying
- Drop in academic performance or school refusal
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm, or mentioning wanting to join the deceased person
Below are resources for parents and caregivers of children experiencing a loss:
Local Grief & Loss Specialists
38 Elm St, Morristown, NJ 07960
(There is also a Princeton location)
Books can be a great way to connect with your child during this time, as well as providing a comforting framework for a child to reference their loss.
Here are a few recommendations:
- Age 2-3:
“Something Very Sad Happened: A Toddler’s Guide to Understanding Death” by
- Age 3+:
“The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
(For loss of a pet: “The Invisible Leash” also by Karst)
- Age 4-10:
“A Sad Dragon: A Dragon Book about Grief and Loss” by Steve Herman
“The Memory Box: A Book about Grief” by Joanna Rowland
“When Someone Dies: A Children’s Mindful How-To Guide on Grief and Loss” by
“The Grief Rock” by Natasha Daniels
- Age 8-12
“How I Feel: Grief Journal for Kids” by Mia Rolden
- Age 13-18
“The Grieving Teen” by Helen Fitzgerald
- Older teens:
“It’s OK that You’re Not OK” by Megan Devine
“I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye” by Brook Noel & Pamela D. Blair, PhD
“A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Childhood Grief” by Katie Lear, LCMHC, RPT, RDT
Resources for this article:
*Please note that children should not be exposed to overly excessive displays and prolonged emotional reactions from grieving adults. While sadness and tears are appropriate, there needs to be some limitation on the severity and duration of children’s exposure in witnessing these reactions.