How to talk to your child about death

Dec 11, 20234 minutes read time

Reviewed by: Professor Mark Dadds and Dr Lucy Tully

Key points:

  • Children process death differently at different ages. By the time they reach middle childhood (ages 8 to 12), most kids know death is permanent and universal.
  • It’s important to talk with your child about death from an early age – if possible, before they experience it.
  • There are specific things you can do to help your child process the death of a grandparent or the loss of a beloved pet.

In many cultures, death is seen as a natural part of life’s cycle. Families talk about it openly instead of pushing it to the shadows. Yet in other cultures, we avoid talking to our children about death at all costs.

There are a number of reasons for this. As parents, we want to protect our children. We don’t want them to be afraid. But not talking about death isn’t helping anyone, least of all our kids.

Every child will experience loss at some point – whether it’s the death of a pet, the loss of a beloved grandparent or someone else.

Let’s explore how to have a healthy, meaningful conversation to help your child process death.

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How kids understand the concept of death: an age-by-age guide

A child’s awareness and understanding of death changes as they grow. While every child is different, here’s what you can expect in broad terms.

Toddlers (1 to 2)

Children this young typically do not have an understanding or awareness of death.

Preschoolers (3 to 4)

Kids at this age are forming a basic understanding of death, but they do not yet understand the finality of death.

Early grade school (5 to 7)

By the time kids reach grade school, they’re beginning to understand that death is permanent. But they may not realise it’s something that happens to everyone.

Middle childhood (8 to 12)

By this age, most kids know death is permanent and universal. Their understanding of death will become more nuanced as they get closer to adolescence. But early on they may not have a solid grasp on what causes death. This will be important to keep in mind when telling them about a loved one who’s died (more on that in a bit).

Dad talking with his young son.

Don’t wait for someone to die before you talk to your child

Your child will be better equipped to cope with death if they aren’t blindsided by it. Start gently introducing them to the concept of death when they reach preschool age.

One good way to do this is by using low-stakes examples from everyday life.  For example, point out a dead plant or a dead insect on the ground when you’re out on a walk. Talk about how the plant won’t grow anymore or the bug won’t move anymore, so they start to get an idea of what death means.

Be sure to use clear, simple language — and always be honest with your child. For example: ‘That bug died because it’s body stopped working’.

You should also help them begin to understand that death is universal. For example, you could point out that everything and everyone dies at some point.

While it may feel uncomfortable talking about death with your child, they will be much better prepared to cope with the loss of a loved one later if you start having these conversations now.

How to talk to your child about the death of a grandparent

Often, a grandparent will be the first death of a close family member that a child experiences. While it can be incredibly painful (and confusing), there are steps you can take to help your child process the loss.

Be direct and honest

Don’t beat around the bush or use code words for death. Not only does this send the message that death is something we don’t talk about openly, it can be incredibly confusing – especially to young children.

For example, if you refer to death as “sleep” or say, “Granddad’s in a better place,” your child may not understand the permanence of what’s happened. They may assume their loved one is coming back.

Be sure to use the word “death” and, if your child is younger, clearly explain what that means.

Answer your child’s questions honestly

Let them know it’s ok to ask questions about death. Some kids may ask the same question more than once. They’re not trying to annoy you (promise!), it’s just part of how they come to terms with the permanence of death. Answer as patiently and consistently as you can.

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers – it’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’. Being honest about your uncertainties can actually be comforting to your child. It reminds them they’re not the only ones with unanswered questions.

Be ready for (and accept) a range of emotions

Some kids may cry immediately. Others may seem numb or unfazed. Every child processes grief differently.

Give your child space to feel what they feel and express it however they choose. Let them know it’s ok to feel a range of emotions. Don’t try to tell them how they should feel.

Let them see you grieve your loved one’s death

Don’t try to hide your sadness from your child. You might be worried your children will be upset if they see you grieve. In reality, that’s a powerful way to let them know it’s ok for them to be sad too. Talking about what you’re feeling can help your child identify what they’re feeling.

Prepare them for what will happen next

Take time to talk through what to expect before your child attends a visitation, funeral, or burial service. Some important details to cover:

  • Whether there will be an open casket

  • What happens when someone is buried or cremated

  • What kinds of emotional responses they might see from others

Include your child in the process of memorialising your loved one

Allow your child to be an active participant and not just a passive observer. There are a number of simple ways you can do this – for example:

  • Ask them to choose a favourite photo of them with their grandparent to include in the memorial

  • Plant a tree together in their honour

Whatever you do, inviting your child into the grieving process can have a profound healing effect.

Preserve as much of your child’s routine as possible

Most children crave routine and familiarity – it’s a source of security, especially when their world turns upside down.

If the person who died was involved in the child’s routine – for example, a grandparent who looked after them after school – explain clearly what will be different and what their new routine will look like.

Talk about your loved one together

It’s healthy – and important – to talk to your child about their loved one who died. While it can also bring feelings of grief to the surface (that’s healthy too), talking about them is one of the best things you can do to process their death together. Make a point to share some of your favourite memories of your loved one with your child.

Dad with kid and kite having a talk about death.

How to talk to your child about the death of a pet

Just about everything we’ve covered so far applies just as well to talking to a child about the death of a pet. For example:

  • Talk about it before it happens, especially if your pet is old or sick. But it can also be a part of the initial conversation when bringing a new pet into the home – helping your child understand the average life expectancy of a pet compared to a person, for example.

  • Be direct and honest. Never tell your child their pet ran away or try to replace it without them noticing.

  • Don’t use coded language like “put to sleep.” It might confuse your child if they don’t fully understand the permanence of death.

  • Include your child in memorialising your deceased pet. For example, you could let them plan a special burial service.

  • Talk about some of your favourite memories with your pet.

There are a specific things to keep in mind when dealing with the loss of a pet as well:

  • If your pet has to be put down, explain the process to your child and why it’s necessary. If the child is old enough, they may want to be with the pet when it is put down. This can be a meaningful way for them to say goodbye. But every child is different, so use your best judgement.

  • Sometimes pets die unexpectedly – for example, a sudden accident or injury. If this is the case with your pet, explain what happened truthfully and gently.

Everyone will experience death at some point in their lives. Talking about it with your children can be hard – but it’s also one of the healthiest things you can do for them. Your openness will help them process death – and celebrate life.

Want to nail child discipline? The best go to strategies are covered in Family Man.

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