Joy Sackett Wood

Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Grief Transformation Coach & Author

How to Tell Children About Death

As an adult it can completely overwhelm and consume us. For children, it can sometimes be even harder to move through and past the death of a loved one, primarily because they simply might not have the emotional capability and understanding to deal with such a situation.

Some people believe that they should withhold the information of someone dying from their children and of course it is their decision, but honesty is usually the best way. Sooner or later they will realise something is not right and then you might need to tell them anyway, which may make it more difficult. If they loved and cared for someone, they should know what has happened to them.

We know that death is an inevitable part of life, but talking about death is something most of us, if not all, are not very good at because the subject is too painful or we simply don’t know what to say.

Death happens in so many different ways. It can be sudden, expected, prolonged or even accidental; none of us really knows how we are going to die. Part of the experience of death is finding ways to accept what has happened, express what we are feeling and find ways to move on. We, as adults, need to find ways to help our children to do this too.

So, what advice can we give about telling a child about death?

  • Be truthful – it is better to be honest right from the start and tell them immediately so that they don’t overhear parts of conversations and misunderstand.
  • Be Clear – Don’t try and soften your words by using things like “passed” or “we’ve lost them” because this can be misinterpreted by children. Don’t be afraid to use the words dead and died.
  • Be prepared – Each person reacts differently to death and this is the same with children so be prepared for a variety of different emotional responses. None of them are wrong and you need to allow your child to express how they are feeling whether it comes across as happy, sad, angry or unfeeling.
  • Don’t Overload – Try not to overload them with lots of information at once. Gauge how much information your child can handle and break everything down in to chunks of that size.
  • Cry – One of the best things you can do for your child is to cry. Allow them to see you cry. Crying is simply the opposite of smiling and it’s okay to show them how you are feeling and to let them know that it is okay for them to do it too.

During times of grief, we often forget about taking care of ourselves especially if our children are grieving too. However, children will always learn from what they see, so ensuring you practice a little self-care is important so that they follow suit.

Everyone grieves in their own way. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. You will all need to understand that a “new normal” will take the place of the old one – and that time is needed to adjust to it, especially if it is a significant death that will impact upon daily life. If you think you need or your children need additional support, reach out as it is there to be found in places such as your child’s school, your doctor, private counselling or bereavement support charities which exist for both adults and children.

The biggest advice of all is simply to take things one step at a time.