How To Talk To A Child About Death

By Kriston Wenzel, LSW

Talking about death is not something most of us are comfortable doing—even with other adults. Sometimes in the midst of our own grief, we forget that death can present a tremendous blow to even the youngest children. Children understand death very differently than adults, depending on their age and stage of development. Below are tips to help you talk to your child about death.

  • Be honest. Provide simple, direct and honest answers and encourage questions. If you don’t know an answer, say so.
  • It’s not your fault. Reassure the child that he/she will always be taken care of and loved and that the death was not his/her fault.
  • Don’t judge. Do not judge what a child says or does. Instead, acknowledge what is said or done to preserve trust and help him/her continue sharing.
  • Be a model. Examine yourself and your own grieving. A child learns about grief by watching you. If you hide your feelings, the child will hide his/hers. Don’t be afraid to cry around your child.
  • Watch for teachable moments. Use natural circumstances to teach the child about loss, such as the death of a pet or a change of seasons.
  • Avoid unhealthy explanations:

“He has gone on a long trip.”

The child may feel hurt that the person left without saying good-bye.

“He was taken away by God.”

The child may fear being taken away, too, or may have anger toward God. 

“She died because she was sick.”

The child might think he/she will die the next time he or she is ill. Explain to the child that the person had a disease very different from the kind he or she gets.

“She is in eternal sleep.”

Saying this may cause the child to become afraid of sleeping.

Children grieve in unique ways, and there are resources available to you and your family to help you through this difficult time. If you know a child who has recently experienced the death of a loved one, I encourage you to consider having him or her attend Youth Journeys, a special one-day support program through Hospice of the Red River Valley. For information on our upcoming session, contact us at (701) 356-1500.

Kriston Wenzel, LSW, is a bereavement specialist at Hospice of the Red River Valley. What she enjoys most about her work is having the chance to help individuals and families find their strength and resiliency during such a difficult time in their lives.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
Hospice of the Red River Valley is an independent, not-for-profit hospice serving all, or portions of, 29 counties in North Dakota and Minnesota. Hospice care is intensive comfort care that alleviates pain and suffering, enhancing the quality of life for patients with life-limiting illnesses and their loved ones by addressing their medical, emotional, spiritual and grief needs. For more information, call toll free 800-237-4629, email questions@hrrv.org or visit www.hrrv.org.