It is important to have honest conversations with children about death and dying, because they will encounter it at some point - whether it's the loss of a beloved pet, a mouse brought in by the cat or a grandparent dying.
How to start a conversation about death with children
Without open discussions children can develop fears and misunderstandings regarding death, which can grow as they get older.
This can also cause them to feel isolated or guilty about how they feel. Children are often more open to conversations about death than adults realise.
- You can use an event, an activity or a resource to start the conversation. For example:
- Books about death and dying for children (you can find a list in our Dying Matters section)
- The death of a pet, or finding a dead animal can be an opportunity to start a conversation about dying. Let the child be there when it is buried, and carry out a ritual like planting flowers.
- Involve children in family activities including attending funerals, if they want to, explaining what they can expect to happen there. It's an opportunity for them to say goodbye to the person who has died.
- Memory boxes can be a good way of helping children remember loved ones who have died. These are containers you can create together, and fill with photos, letters, and any objects that remind you and your children of the happy times you had with them.
How to talk to children about death and dying
It’s important to make sure the child is comfortable asking questions or expressing their opinions about death. Try to let them lead the conversation wherever possible.
Talk about death and dying as a part of life, and how life and death go together. Referencing the natural world is a good way to demonstrate this, for example talking about flowers withering and leaves falling.
Children often ask practical questions instead of talking about their feelings, as they try to process what death means. They might ask what’s inside a coffin, and what a dead body looks like.
These are entirely sensible things to wonder, and it is reassuring to a child if you discuss them. Stacey Hart, a trauma specialist at children and young people’s bereavement charity Grief Encounter, explains how children understand death in this article.
Useful tips for talking about death
- Listen carefully so you know exactly what the child means to say
- If you don't know the answer to something, be honest and say so
- Don't worry if you think you answered the question badly - it's more important to the child that you've paid attention
- Try not to look uncomfortable answering their questions - it may create the impression that talking about these things is not allowed
- Try and answer their question as soon as they've asked it – a child’s attention span is limited. A series of short conversations is often easier than long sessions
- Be clear and direct in your language - using phrases such as 'passed away' rather than 'died' can leave them confused
- Children understand words very literally, and you may need to check that they haven't misunderstood
- There's no harm in a child seeing that you are sad or crying. It will help them know their own grief is acceptable.
If you would like support from a professional the Childhood Bereavement Network has details of local services as well as general advice.
We have a leaflet, produced by the Dying Matters campaign, which you can download and print for future reference.