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How to Talk to a Child about a Death in the Family

Written by Carolyn Carlson, M.D. on Feb 1, 2017, 7:57:00 AM

Losing a loved one is hard. When a child’s loved one dies, it can be infinitely more difficult. Knowing what to say to a child about a concept as heavy and involved as death is daunting, especially when processing your own grief. Here are some tips that may help make talking to your child about death a little easier. 

Be Direct and Help Them Sort out Their Emotions

Keep in mind the age of your child and tell them in as simple and clear language as possible. Children don’t understand metaphor or euphemism, so instead of saying that someone “passed away,” it may be better to say “I have something sad to tell you. Your aunt has died.” Chances are, they’ve had some experience with death – either seeing it in a TV show or movie or through the loss of a pet. Encourage questions – they’ll likely have some. If they do, be sure you are honest and try to answer all of them to the best of your ability. Encourage them to tell you how they’re feeling and share how you’re feeling, too. It’s OK to tell them you’re sad. It shows them what they’re feeling is normal.

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Prepare Them for What’s Next

Children don’t typically like big changes to their routines, so the more you explain to them the better they’ll be equipped to handle changes. 

If the person who passed away looked after them while you were at work, tell them what the new plan is. 

If they will be attending the funeral, explain what a funeral is and what they can expect. A good thing to tell them might be, “A lot of people who loved your aunt will be there. People will hug and cry and pray and tell you they’re sorry. These are all normal actions that happen at a funeral.” Explain the burial and the coffin, if that’s the route you’re going. If you’re having a get-together afterward, tell your child this will be a time to remember the person who died and share the love you had for them by talking about them and laughing with your family. It might be a good idea to explain this is what people do to feel better after going through something so sad. Share with them your family’s beliefs about what happens to a person after they die. 

Be There to Help Them Heal

Talk with your child about the person who has died. Help them remember happy times and funny stories about the person and encourage them to tell you how they feel. This is very helpful to healing – for them and for you. Have them draw pictures of the person if that’s an easier way of expression for them.

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When they’re struggling with emotion, help them recognize it so they know what they’re feeling, and be there to comfort them. Try not to let them dwell for too long on the topic, however – once you’ve addressed their feelings and they’ve talked about it, try to move on to something they enjoy doing. 

If you notice a change in sleep patterns, behavior or nightmares that last for an extended period of time, it might be a good idea to see a counselor to find out the best way to help them deal with the loss. And remember – grief can take a while to process, for your child and for you. Have continuous conversations about how you and your child are feeling and keep talking about the good times you had with your loved ones – moving on doesn’t mean forgetting. 


Dr. Carlson is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Summer Creek Clinic. Her clinical interests include infectious diseases (both viral and bacterial), dermatologic diseases, development and Adolescent Medicine.



Topics: kids and death, how to talk to a child about death

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