What do you say to a child when someone they love has died? Whether it’s a grandparent, friend or beloved pet, talking about the end of life is difficult.
“This is hard, and it’s not done in a vacuum,” says UNC School of Medicine child and adolescent psychiatry fellow Gabrielle Hodgins, MD. “Parents are going through the grieving process themselves and trying to cope. Give yourself some grace.”
What you say will depend on the age and developmental stage of the child, she says. But don’t avoid the topic.
“The biggest risk is in not talking about death,” she says. “If you are acknowledging the loss, then you’re already doing well.”
Dr. Hodgins helps answer common questions of parents and other caregivers.
The Basics of Talking to a Child About Death and Loss
How do you start a conversation about death with a child?
Discuss death honestly with children, using clear language that helps them understand that the loved one is not coming back, Dr. Hodgins says. Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away” or, in the case of an animal, “put to sleep.”
“Euphemisms can be confusing or scary to a child,” she says.
Encourage your child to express their feelings, especially when the person who died is someone they were close to. They may talk, but drawing, playing, painting and other activities also can provide an outlet for their feelings.
“They may have fears of abandonment,” Dr. Hodgins says. “They may worry that there’s no one left to love or care for them. Remind them of the people who are around to love and support them.”
The death of a classmate or another young person may be particularly scary for a child.
“Death usually feels like something pretty far away,” she says. “Knowing someone their own age had died can really challenge that view.”
When should you talk with children about death?
If possible, have a conversation as soon as you can arrange to be one-on-one in a place where the child feels safe and comfortable.
“Ideally, we would want to wait until a parent is emotionally able to talk with the child,” Dr. Hodgins says. “But if the child is asking questions, if it’s coming up in conversations at home, we would want to be available for them. Not knowing what’s going on is the scariest thing for a child.”
Encourage children to talk about the loved one who has died. Tell them things you remember, and encourage them to share their memories, too.
“It’s a normal reaction for a child to grieve the loss of someone they care about,” she says. “The risk comes with disenfranchised grief—letting the wounds fester over time.”
Bottled-up feelings can lead to poor mental health, including depression, she says.
At what age can a child understand death?
Children younger than 6 are not likely to understand that death means the loved one is gone permanently. They may continue to ask for the person or pet, requiring you tell them over and over that death means they are not coming back.
“It’s not easy on the parent,” Dr. Hodgins says, “but developmentally, that’s to be expected.”
When the child is old enough to understand death (usually age 6 or 7), consider asking open-ended questions, such as, “What are you feeling?” or “What’s your understanding of what’s going on?”
“In that way, you’re allowing the child to guide the conversation,” she says. “This will evolve as the child gets older.”
You may want to talk about your beliefs about what happens after death. This may spark other questions from your child.
With teens and older children, it’s important to create space for them to talk about the death or ask questions when they are ready. Parents also should realize that teens may have their own ideas and opinions about death based on what they hear from peers or read online. Be aware of the way death is depicted or glorified through the media your teen consumes, including TV, movies and social media.
“You can support them by trying to understand what they already know, or what they think they know,” she says. “If any of their understanding isn’t correct, you can have a conversation about that.”
How long will a child grieve?
Whether you’re an adult or a child, there’s no deadline for grief, Dr. Hodgins says.
“When a child experiences a loss, it’s normal and likely they will display feelings of sadness on and off for a long time,” she says.
Holidays, birthdays and other special times may trigger sadness, but grief also may come at unexpected moments.
“Let them know it’s OK to be experiencing these feelings, and encourage them to share with you,” she says.
A child’s symptoms of grief may be different from an adult’s and will depend on the child’s personality and age. Children may be angry or irritable, have nightmares, wet the bed, or experience headaches or stomachaches. They may seem withdrawn. Their performance at school may change. They may talk about wanting to be with the person who died. Or they may want more attention and need to be cuddled.
“As we’ve all experienced, feelings of loss can pop up years down the line, especially in moments when we really miss them and would have wanted them with us,” Dr. Hodgins says. “It’s the same for children, and it’s normal.”
If the grief and sadness seem to be getting worse or interfering with a child’s ability to function several months after the loss, consider getting professional help.
More Guidance for Adults Talking to a Child About Death
Should you share your feelings of grief and sadness with your child?
When an adult shares their own feelings, it helps children know they’re not alone in their grief, Dr. Hodgins says.
“It’s important that children have examples of what it looks like to share feelings,” she says. “It helps them realize that having feelings of grief and sadness are normal.”
It’s important to be honest—“I am feeling really sad and missing Grandma”—but try not to make the child feel like they need to comfort adults.
Should a child attend a funeral or memorial service?
First, talk with your child about what the service entails: who will be there, if there will be an open casket, how long it will last. Then, to the extent possible, let them decide whether to attend.
“In the aftermath of a loss, if we can offer them a choice, it helps give them a sense of control over the situation,” Dr. Hodgins says.
Should you talk to siblings together or individually?
It depends on the children and how close they are in age and attachment, but Dr. Hodgins says it’s usually best to have individual discussions, at least as follow-up conversations.
“Focusing on one child at a time allows you to talk with them on their level and allow them to express their own fears and questions” without an audience, she says.
What if a parent is unable to have a conversation about loss?
Sometimes it’s necessary for someone other than a parent to talk to the child about death if the parent is too distraught or if it is the parent who has died.
In that case, the person talking to the child about the loss should be a reliable presence in their lives who will be around for continuing conversations and support.
“Loss requires all of us to be flexible to the unexpected,” Dr. Hodgins says. “The person having the conversation with the child may be a trusted, loving adult who is not their parent, and that’s OK.”
Is it OK to grieve a pet the same way you would a person?
Yes, it’s completely appropriate to feel deep grief over the loss of a beloved dog, cat or another pet. Children are often closer to pets than to people they don’t see every day.
“It’s easy to write off the loss of a pet as less of a loss,” Dr. Hodgins says, “but a pet is an important member of the family and part of their everyday life.”
Don’t minimize the loss of a pet. Instead, find ways to honor your child’s grief, and your own. For example, you and your child could work on a photo album of the pet or paint a rock with their name on it for the backyard.
Do you need advice about your child’s mental health? Talk to their doctor, or find one near you.