Tough topics: How to talk to kids about death

Whether you’ve lost a butterfly, the family pet or Grandma, it can be hard to know how to explain death to children. A clinical psychologist has all the answers…

How to talk to kids about death

When the family dog or a beloved grandparent dies, our first thought is often: “What are we going to tell the kids?” To protect them from grief, we sometimes dance around the topic or use euphemisms that don’t provide them with a clear explanation of what happened to their loved one.

According to Kerrie Noonan, clinical psychologist and director of The Groundswell Project, this goes against children’s natural resilience and can do more harm than good. “If discussions about death with children are avoided, it sends the message that death should be feared instead of being a part of life,” she says. “It’s crucial for parents to be informed and able to talk about death with their kids. It’s no different than talking about sex, bullying and mental health.”

Still not sure how to broach the topic? Kerrie has all the answers…

What is the best age to talk to children about death?

“Don’t worry too much about how old a child is as an indicator of whether or not they ‘understand’ death or not,” says Kerrie. “The best time to talk about death is when it happens. Children learn best through experience, so include them in hospital visits and dying rituals, especially if someone they’re close to is expected to die. This gives them a warning and enough time to come to terms with it.

“The important thing is not to avoid the topic. Treat the conversation about death as a normal and natural part of any conversation you might have with your children.”

How do you explain the death of an insect versus the family pet versus Grandma? Should these deaths be approached in the same way or differently?

“Approach them all in the same way, keeping in mind that each person’s relationship with the person or pet will color their grief and their response to the death,” says Kerrie.

“Use plain language and talk first about physical death. For example, ‘His heart stopped beating and then his body stopped working and he died.’ These are all tangible or ‘real’ things a child can see. If you come home from school with your children and the pet guinea pig has died, they can see and feel that its body is cold and still. It’s a very real, hands-on experience that enables a child to ‘register’ that their pet isn’t alive anymore.

“With this recognition usually comes emotions and other responses to the death. All of us in this moment, whatever our age, are trying to make sense of it: “Why did this happen?”, “Did I do something wrong?” and “She seemed fine this morning.” If your children ask specific questions about the death, respond in a factual and straightforward way.”

“Use these teachable moments when they arise. For example, don’t flush the goldfish or quickly replace pets that die. Children learn a great deal from pet funerals and about grief. It also helps parents and adults to build their skills in discussing death with children.”

Are there certain things you shouldn’t say?

“Don’t compare death with things people do when they’re alive,” says Kerrie. “Euphemisms for death – like “Your grandmother is asleep now”, “She went upstairs” or “She has gone to God” – make death sound like something the dead person is doing or has chosen to do. In particular, comparing death to sleeping can be very confusing and scary! It can also make children afraid of falling asleep.”

How about telling children that the pet or person has gone to heaven?

“This can also be scary because children, especially those under eight, are concrete thinkers,” says Kerrie. “Their understanding is helped when they’re given very black-and-white information first. ‘Heaven’ is a very abstract concept for them. I’ve worked with children who have only been told that death means that a person has gone to heaven and the experience is very confusing for them.”

“Of course, religious and spiritual beliefs are very important within families. If you have spiritual beliefs, separate them from the physical death or dead body. Explain the physical aspect first. Then, if a child asks why they can’t visit Grandma in heaven, you can continue to refer to the physical aspect as a way of helping the child – especially young children – to develop an understanding of death.

“You could say, ‘Grandma died and her body has been buried in the ground. We believe that people also have a soul and it’s this part that is with God’ or a version of that. Talk to your religious and spiritual leaders too.”

How do you explain mass deaths due to terrorism or natural disasters that children hear about on the news?

“Take the same practical approach,” says Kerrie. “Hearing about mass shootings or natural disasters where large numbers of people die is very scary for children. Lots of reassurance is needed and their exposure to the stories and images should be limited. Don’t watch or listen to the news for a few days.”

“Trust your judgement about what your child needs. Some children want to know lots of facts about tsunamis or gun violence – this is a way to process their fear and to try to feel some sense of control over the thought that it might happen to them or someone they know. Children might also have nightmares and draw pictures of violence to manage their fears. As a parent, you can support all of these experiences – ask questions, respond to fears, and use simple and factual information.”

How should you explain suicide?

“It can feel so big and difficult to take this on with your children, especially young ones,” says Kerrie. “Some of the following tips will sound really direct and confronting, but the best way to ensure that children don’t feel lied to is to tell them the truth.

“When children find out that the death occurred differently to what they were told, it can be really devastating and impact on their sense of trust. Children have told me that it was a relief when they finally learned the truth because they knew that something was wrong and they were being excluded. Not telling a child about suicide ‘because they can’t understand’ or ‘it’s too much for them’ aren’t good reasons.

“Children can also blame themselves for the death or feel that they might be responsible for what happened. You can’t fully address these feelings unless you start from a place of honesty.

“I know it’s tough to say these things out loud, but children say that it’s helpful to be told that someone ‘died by suicide’ or ‘killed himself/herself’ because it’s simple and straight to the point. If a child doesn’t know what suicide means, give them a moment to ask you about it or ask, ‘Do you know what that word means?’ You can then say, ‘Suicide is when someone chooses to make their body stop working and they die.’

“Parents also worry that the next question will be, ‘How did they do it?’ Again, stick to the facts. There’s no easy way other than trying to make it as simple and factual as possible for the child’s age.

“Both parents and children I’ve worked with have emphasized the importance of building reminders about asking for help and getting support into any conversation about suicide. I remember a mother telling her son that if his brother had waited even a split second more, he may have chosen not to kill himself. She used this conversation to talk to him about coping strategies and his own resilience even though his grief was so deeply affecting him after the death of his brother.”

“For more on supporting children through suicide, you can consult this booklet I wrote.

Say it straight

Whether you’re tackling the death of a pet or a family member, telling children the truth in age-appropriate terms is the best way to ensure that they have a clear understanding of what happened and, most importantly, that they’re able to process their grief in a healthy way in a safe and loving space.