Explanations about death to children need to be carefully thought out. Children often have a hard time understanding or processing the concept of death, and parents don’t always know how much information they should share with their living children. To help make this process smoother for you when you already have so much on your mind, we’ve provided the following tips on explaining death to children, as well as some common reactions and behaviors you can expect to receive from them.
Tips on Explaining Death to Children
Use Simple, Direct Language
Terms like “died” and “dead”, while hard to say, will be less confusing to a child than terms like “passed away,” “lost,” “taken,” or “went to sleep.”
Provide a Straightforward Description of Death
Something like “her heart stopped beating, so she died” or “his body stopped working, so he died” will help your child understand what death means. Death should be explained in simple, honest terms, otherwise your child will be left to imagine what happened. These thoughts can often be scarier that the truth.
Carefully Consider How Much Information to Share
Depending on how your child died, it could be frightening for surviving children to hear those details. Telling a young child that their sibling died in his/her sleep could make them scared to sleep or using phrases like “very sick” could make them worry they will die the next time they are sick.
Share Information as They Are Comfortable
Follow your child’s lead; let your child ask you questions when they are comfortable and share information in small doses. They may not be ready to hear everything at once. Depending on the age of your child they may have a basic understanding of death and may ask harder questions. Older children may ask a lot of “why” questions and want more detailed answers.
Be Prepared for Your Child to Quickly Move to Another Topic
Kids may quickly change the topic or run off to do something else after you tell them about their sibling’s death. Just like with other things in everyday life, a child may not be able to focus on a serious topic for long. That’s okay- don’t push them to have long conversations about it, especially initially.
Be Emotional Around Your Child
It is okay for your kids to see you grieving. This helps them understand what grief is and that their own emotions about their sibling are normal.
Saying “I don’t know” is Okay
Don’t feel like you have to create an answer for all of their questions. I don’t know is an okay response.
You May Have to Repeat Yourself
Some kids won’t initially understand that death is final or forever, and you may have to tell them over and over again what happened and what it means.
Death is an abstract concept for children and it may take time for them to fully understand what has happened.
Reinforce that Your Surviving Child Did Nothing to Cause the Death
Young children may think that because they were mean to their sibling or wished they would leave, that those thoughts and actions caused the death. Even if they don’t articulate these thoughts in this way, reinforcing that the death was no one’s fault will help ease these thoughts.
Experiencing the Death as They Grow Older
As your child gets older, their maturity and understanding of concepts surrounding death are likely to change. This may mean that new questions or forms of grief may come up. When this happens, help your child process the loss again in an age appropriate way.
Common Reactions and Behaviors
While each child will respond to death and work through their grief differently, these are all very common behaviors or reactions that you might see from surviving children:
- Sadness or Depression
- Behavior problems, such as irritability, acting younger than their age, or seeking attention
- Anger or Blame
- Trouble Sleeping/Nightmares
- New fears
- Physical responses such as headaches or stomachaches
- Separation Anxiety
For more information on how children respond to death based on age and what to expect, please see Share’s resource on Children’s Grief, which can be found at http://nationalshare.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014-Children-SAMPLE.pdf