Talking with young children about death and dying

Death is part of life, even for the very young. Explore simple tips for talking to young children about death and dying.

Keep your explanation of death simple for very young children.
Keep your explanation of death simple for very young children.

Adults are often reluctant to discuss death and dying with young children because they are afraid they might make their child sad. Many adults aren’t sure, or haven’t explored, their own feelings about death. Some adults resist discussions about death because they just don’t know what to say. Once you explore your own feelings about death and dying, you can better prepare yourself to open a discussion with young children.

Children are keenly aware of death and dying through everyday interactions with nature. Most young children see death in various forms. Nearly all children have seen a plant that has curled up and turned brown. Animals that have died lie by the side of the road and dead bugs can be found nearly every place in the spring. Children hear stories about a princess who died in a fairy tale and watch television shows where people die in nearly every episode. Our evening news highlights tragedies where death appears commonplace. Many preschool children experience serious illness, the death of a pet or the passing of a close relative even before they begin school.

It is important to remember children develop at different rates and each child has life experiences that are uniquely theirs. What has their previous exposure to death looked like? How much do they actually understand? It is not uncommon for a 3- or 4-year-old to ask questions about death. Keep your explanation of death simple for very young children. “When something dies, it doesn’t breathe anymore, eat or feel warm or cold.” Explain you won’t see this person or pet again except in your memories of things you have done with them

Hospice has dedicated a section on their website to this specific topic. Children need and deserve sensitive responses from adults that reflect their own feelings. Letting a child know you are sad can help open a door for discussion on why you are sad and how you express sadness.

Michigan State University Extension recommends some simple guidelines to help you explore the topic of death with young children.

  • Look at yourself. Talk a hard look at your own beliefs and feelings about death. Your thoughts and beliefs may change as you age. Talk about death when you aren’t emotionally involved. Opportunities appear every time you see a dead flower, tree, bird or bug. Your child will watch your reaction and follow your lead. Give your feelings a name.
  • Be observant. Watch your child and listen carefully to their concerns. Check in to see if the child needs to talk or needs more formation. “You seem worried about something.” “You are very quiet this morning.” “Do you want to talk about something?” Silence from a child is OK – they may need time to process what has happened.
  • Keep it simple. Answer questions with brief, honest explanations. It is best to keep your discussion of death very basic in the preschool years. Use familiar items and terms a child can understand. “When dogs die, they don’t run around or bark anymore.” “When a plant dies, it won’t grow again.” If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to say so.
  • Be honest with your child. Share your own feelings about loss and grief. Explain it is OK to be sad when something you love dies. Reassure your child you are here for them. If you need to talk about someone who has died from an illness, you might simply tell your child the doctor couldn’t fix what was wrong and the person’s body quit working.
  • Be patient. Preschool children may ask the same question over and over. “Why are you sad?” “When will our kitty come home?” Young children learn through repetition. You may have to explain many times that a person or pet has died and is not returning. Some questions from young children may seem inappropriate, like “Can Grandma still eat?” Preschool children may see death as a temporary state based on their experience watching cartoons and television shows.
  • Consult a professional counselor or your child’s physician if you are concerned about your child’s reaction to death. Children sometimes expect their parents and caregivers to be an expert on all topics, and you won’t always have all the answers. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends using children’s books about death to assist in discussing the tender topic of death. Your local librarian can also assist you in finding books to help explain death and dying to young children.

For more on information caregiving or family issues that affect you, visit the MSU Extension and eXtension websites.

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