Talking to Children about Death

Posted on June 3, 2021 by Rev. Pam Reidy under children and death
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Craig was 8 years old and dying of leukemia after months of failed treatments. His brother was two years older. I was the parish religious educator, so it was natural for Craig’s mother to ask me to explain death to Craig’s brother. The book Freddy The Fall Leaf by Leo Buscaglia, was my starting point. Appropriate for ages 4 through 94, this classic tale follows Freddie and his friends as they pass through autumn and tumble to the winter ground. It is beautifully illustrated, skillfully told, and at the time it helped me navigate a difficult conversation with Craig’s brother.

Since then, I have learned a thing or two about introducing children to death. Now I would coach mom or a close relative to have the conversation with Craig’s brother, rather than talk to him myself. There are certain subjects that are best presented by parents, the primary educators of their children. Parents need not be the perfect communicator, a child psychologist, theologian or thanatologist to do a good job. When speaking of death with a child, one must have the child’s confidence, be knowledgeable, comfortable and compassionate.  Parents are accustomed to talking to their children about life, and so it should be with death. There is no substitute for familial love when exploring the complexities of life and death.

Death is a normal part of life and should be approached as such. The ideal situation is for parents to educate their children during the ordinary days of life, meaning when someone dies may not be the best time to approach this topic. When a pet dies, the leaves fall, when a prominent death dominates the news, even when a flower dies and produces seeds, these are all perfect occasions to broach the subject of death and rebirth. A perfect time is in the early morning when snuggling in bed. The day is brand new and though it seemed the dark of the previous night ended everything, here it is beginning all over again.  Lesson one: Death always begins something new for both the deceased and those who remain.


The younger the child, the greater their capacity to wonder, dream and believe. Children are adept at using intuition and instinct to draw conclusions about the world around them. Thus, they are usually more comfortable in the world of the unknown than we are. When teaching children about death capitalize on their natural curiosity and affirm their fascination for the unknowable. Death education should be congruent with the philosophy already applied in teaching other subjects. These could be tenets of religion, spiritual practices, the arts, literature or nature’s ever-present cycle of living and dying and rebirth. Despite the vast knowledge science provides, there remains something of the mystical in life, including birth, love, human individuality, weather, illness and death. There is so much we do not know and parents have instinctively already adopted an approach to draw upon.

One guiding principle for discussing opacities with children is not to teach anything that will need to be untaught later. For example, teaching a child that the stork brings a baby, will ultimately become impractical and require reteaching. Do not give more information than a child is looking for, it confuses the issue and they don’t hear beyond what they ask. Until early adolescence children are concrete thinkers, seeing things in black and white. Because many of the concepts of death are intangible, it impossible for children to understand its nuisances and circumstances. Listen carefully to their questions and do not go beyond what they are asking. Small doses of information over several conversations is better for any complex subject.

When talking to a child about a death that has already occurred, consider their relationship to the deceased. A parent’s death requires more cautious conversation than a neighbor’s passing.  Since each death is unique, information shared should be tailored to the loss and the child’s reaction to it.  When the peer of a child dies, it may be more important to address the fear associated with the lack of control that death brings, than to address the unanswerable question of why some people live longer than others. When a friend dies unexpectedly, a child may be wondering if they are next and become afraid to leave you or go to sleep. Giving a child confidence and control in this case is more important than any attempt to explain why death has occurred.

There is a plethora of information for helping children with death and loss.  Judging what is best to share requires knowing your child, understanding the situation at the time of your discussion and shrouding the conversation in confidence and love.  Above all, having the conversation before it is needed is the absolute best thing you can do for yourself and your child.










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