Your living child(ren) may have many questions about death. Their age, maturity, and previous experience with death (grandparents, neighbors, etc.) will impact the depth of questions children might ask. Try to answer these FAQs from children as honestly as possible, and in words that your child can understand. Be patient with your living children, as they may repeat the same question, especially if they are younger.
Here are some possible questions children might ask with suggested answers:
FAQs from Children
What does “dead” mean?
“Dead” means that the person’s body has stopped working. The person’s heart has stopped beating; he/she does not breathe anymore. The person can no longer see, hear, feel, or move.
Is death like going to sleep?
It is important to explain the difference between sleep and death. When you are sleeping, your body still works. You still breathe, your heart beats, and your body can still move. When a person dies, his/her body stops working. Keep in mind that children who are told that death is like sleeping may be afraid of going to sleep, as they may think that they won’t wake up.
Is he/she hungry, sad, or cold?
Often, young children do not understand that someone who has died no longer has feelings. Children may need to be told repeatedly that when someone dies that they no longer feel, breathe, move, and that their body does not work anymore.
Will he/she come back?
“Forever” is a hard concept for young children to fully grasp. You may need to tell you child many times that the person will not ever come back.
Where is he/she?
This answer will vary depending on your beliefs. Initially it is okay to answer in very concrete terms telling your child that his/her sibling’s body is at the funeral home or hospital. It is okay to include your spirituality or religious beliefs in simple terms that your child can understand. If you choose to talk about an afterlife, keep in mind that depending on the age of your child this may be a difficult concept for them to understand. It is also likely that your child may ask if they can go visit his/her sibling in whatever place you believe your child to be.
Did I do something bad to cause the death?
It is common for young children to feel like they are at fault for death. Your child might feel that they did something or thought something that caused their sibling to die. It is important to reassure your child that nothing he/she did, said, or thought caused their sibling to die. Words and thoughts cannot make anyone die.
Why did he/she die?
Depending on the cause of death, it is important to use appropriate wording to explain the death. A few examples are:
- If your child died from an illness, explain that his/her body could not fight the illness any longer. It is important to differentiate between the illness the person died from versus a cold or the flu.
- If your child died from a heart defect, explain that when he/she was born, his/her heart was not strong and healthy. Reassure your child that their heart is healthy.
- If your child died in an accident, explain that he/she was hurt so badly that his/her body stopped working. Make sure to also explain that when most people get hurt, their bodies can get better.
- If the reason your child died is unknown, it is okay use general language like “his/her heart stopped beating and doctors are working to find out why”. Reassure your child that he or she has a healthy body and that most people live a long time.
Will I die? Will you die?
Once you have experienced this type of loss it is hard to answer this question with any certainty, but reassure your living child(ren) that they are healthy and that while everyone dies at some point, most people live a long time.