Talking to a young child about death and dying can feel daunting and challenging. As adults, our natural instinct is to protect children from the difficult things in life. However, in order to make some sense of what has happened, children need information and honest, simple explanations in language they can understand. While it may be tempting to withhold information, particularly if the death was distressing, it is important to support your child by giving them clear and honest explanations that help them to understand and make sense of what has happened.

How soon should I tell my child that someone has died?

When a parent, sibling, twin siblinggrandparent or friend has died, it is important for children to hear the news as soon as possible. The longer you leave it, the greater the likelihood that they will overhear a conversation or find out in some other less helpful way. Children are very sensitive to atmosphere and may well already have picked up that something serious has happened, but may be unsure as to exactly what.

Who should tell my child that someone has died?

The news is best heard from a trusted member of the family, but if you feel unable to do this, try to stay in close proximity while someone else familiar to the child explains what has happened. If you are breaking the news yourself, have someone else around to support you.

Where should I tell my child that someone has died?

If possible, find somewhere where you will not be disturbed and that is free from distractions. Try to be in close proximity to the child. If appropriate, you may want to reassure or comfort them such as by holding their hand. For a child who finds physical contact uncomfortable, just sit nearby. Sitting alongside them on a settee is ideal.

How can I tell my child that someone has died?

Use simple language: Use simple words appropriate for the child’s age and understanding. It is important to use the real words such as 'dead' and 'died'. Euphemisms including 'lost' or 'gone to sleep' may seem kinder, but these can cause confusion for a child. For instance, some young children may try to look for something that is lost, or find it difficult to go to sleep if they associate this with dying.

Be led by your child’s understanding: Only give as much information as a child wants. This is usually indicated by them asking a question – if they have asked the question, it usually means that they are ready to hear, or need to hear, the answer.

Don’t give too much information: Try to answer only the question asked and avoid giving extra detail. Be honest, but avoid overloading a child with information or detail, which can always be added later if needed.

Check your child’s understanding: If faced with a question you find difficult or are not sure how to answer, it can be helpful to ask the child what they think. This will give you an indication of what is behind their question and how much the child already knows and understands.

Expect questions: You are likely to have to repeat information and answer questions in subsequent days and weeks. Being asked the same questions repeatedly can be difficult, but this is the way that young children try to make sense of what has happened. Answer questions honestly, but keep explanations short, clear and appropriate for their age and understanding. 

If you don’t know the answer, be honest: It is OK to say you don’t know the answer to a question, but that you will come back to them if you find an answer.

Let your child know about plans: Tell your child about plans for the days ahead, including who will take them to school or activities. If you need to leave them, tell them when you will be home. This will help give your child a sense of security when everything else might feel out of control for them.

What words can I use to tell my child someone has died?

The following are suggestions to help you with what to say, how much to say, and when and how to say it. The words suggested are not meant to be a script; they are ideas to give you the confidence to go with what feels right for you and the child or children you are with.

Alert the child to the fact that you have something sad to say: "I have some very sad news to tell you". Use clear language that they can understand. If a person has been unwell, it can be helpful to build on what the child already knows:

You might say:

I have something very sad to tell you. Grandad has been very ill for some time, and now he has died.

Avoid using words or phrases such as 'lost', 'passed away', 'gone to the stars' or 'gone to sleep' as these can be confusing for children. Clear words such as 'he has died' might feel blunt but they are much easier for children to understand. 

Often all you need to say initially is that the person has died; more questions will follow when the child is ready for further explanation and information. Allow for time together for comfort and support. Reassure the child that it is OK to ask questions about anything at all and that you will do your best to answer them.

Should I let my child see how I am feeling?

It is OK to show your emotions and to explain that you are sad because the person has died, and that it is natural to feel sad sometimes or to cry when someone dies. If your child doesn’t seem to react at first, that is OK too. It may take time for the information to sink in. In terms of how children and young people grieve, it is often the case that they tend to dip in and out of their feelings more than adults, switching from feeling sad to feeling OK.

How can I explain to my child what 'dead' means?

The following are suggestions for words you could use when explaining the concept of being dead to a young child. Exactly what you choose to say will depend on individual circumstances and your own beliefs. A good approach is honesty combined with lots of reassurance. Concentrate on what feels right for you and the child that you are with. You might say:

When somebody dies their body stops working. A dead body does not breathe because their lungs are no longer working and the heart has stopped. A dead body cannot move, it will be quiet and still. A dead body cannot feel anything so there will be no pain.

Because a young child under five can find it hard to grasp the difference between being dead and being alive, they may need to be reassured. You might say:

Because their body has stopped working, dead people do not need anything to eat or to drink and they cannot feel the cold. Dead people stay dead forever; much as we might like them to, they cannot come back to life.

For younger children, visual examples from the natural world can help to explain, such as comparing a dead leaf on the ground to a living leaf on the tree, or if you come across a dead insect.

How might my child react to hearing that someone has died?

Children and young people tend to show feelings with behaviours rather than words, and they absorb and process information in different ways at different ages. The way a child reacts to the news and the way they grieve is affected by their age and understanding.

They might show distress or anger, ask questions or seem not to react at all at first, while others may giggle nervously. Not reacting at first does not mean they don’t care or haven’t heard you. They may suddenly come back with a reaction or question later.

Common reactions include feeling anxious or insecure, being angry, being confused about the death and why it has happened, feeling protective of others, reduced self-confidence, and wondering if they were somehow responsible for what happened. All of these responses are normal and it is helpful to reassure, support and comfort the child through their difficult feelings.

An autistic child or a child with special education needs may struggle to understand what they are being told and you may need to find creative ways to explain what has happened such as with signs or symbols, or concrete examples from nature such as a dead plant or insect.

How can I support my child?

Things that help include:

  • Clear, honest and age-appropriate information
  • Giving them time to ask questions and answering their questions clearly and honestly
  • Reassurance that they are not to blame and that different feelings are OK
  • Keeping to normal routines as much as possible
  • If you need to leave them, keeping them informed about where you are going and when you will be home
  • A clear demonstration of who is there for them
  • Making time to talk about what has happened, and to build memories
  • Showing your emotions, which will help them to express rather than hide theirs

What should I do if my child wants to see the body of the person who has died?

Children (and adults) may want to see the body of the person who has died. Making a decision about this can be very difficult and you will need to be guided by what feels right for your family in the circumstances. If children are well prepared for what they will see, and they do not feel pressurised, bereaved children have told us that seeing the person was helpful and not something they regretted doing. It can help children to understand what has happened, and to say goodbye.

Isla didn’t go in with fear, it seemed to be the most natural thing in the world for her to do. She took a drawing and a favourite photograph for Nanny to keep.

It is important to allow a child to change their mind at the last minute. They could stay outside the room at the funeral directors, or look in through the door. Other options include asking a child if they would like to make something special for the person like a note or picture, which can be placed with the person, either before or during the funeral. 

How can I talk to my child about the funeral?

It is helpful to explain to children what a funeral is and why we have them, first explaining what death means to young children if necessary (see above). You may also find it helpful to share and talk about our short animated films on what happens at a burial and what happens at a cremation

A very young child or even a baby can go to a funeral with the rest of the family. Although they may not understand what is happening at the time, when they are older, they will appreciate that they were a part of this important event along with everyone else. Or they could just attend the gathering afterwards. Older children can be given the choice whether to attend. As long as a child is prepared for what is going to happen and what they will see, attending the funeral can be a helpful experience and an important opportunity to process their understanding and say goodbye.

Involving a child in planning the funeral, even in small ways, can help them feel part of the event, even if they do not attend. They could make a drawing or card which could be placed on the coffin, or they might have a favourite poem or a song they would like to be included in the service. If possible, taking the child beforehand to the funeral location can help them feel secure and prepared for the event.

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