Teaching children about death requires honesty and simple, age-appropriate information.
Understanding your child’s knowledge and comprehension of death at different developmental stages is helpful when supporting your child through their grief.
Understanding death at different ages
Preschool-aged children mostly understand death as temporary and reversible. Children between the ages of five and nine begin to understand that all living things eventually die, however, they tend not to relate death to themselves.
Children at around the age of nine through to adolescence begin to fully understand that death is irreversible, and they too will die one day.
6 Ways to Teach Your Child about Death
- Take things slowly
The first step when teaching a child about death is to have a firm grasp of their cognitive and emotional understanding of death. Use this information to guide you, as well as patience and persistence.
Children process death gradually over time. Don’t sit them down once, overwhelm them with information and expect them to internalise it all immediately.
Over a certain period, expect your child to ask various questions. Answer them consistently. As painful as it is, answer them honestly because it will help them start to grasp the finality of death.
- Be honest and clear
Use simple, clear and direct words when teaching a child about death. It is also important to pause and give your child a moment to take in your words. Try to avoid euphemisms like, ‘She’s in a better place,’ because they can be scary and confusing for children.
Use the word ‘death’ to avoid confusion. You could say “Your dad died. When people die their body stops working and you won’t be able to see them again”. If your child responds by asking whether the person’s body can be fixed, say “when a body stops working, it can never start again”. Click here to read the blog ‘What to Say to a Child When a Parent Dies’.
- Build Emotional Literacy
By consistently labelling and modelling your own emotions, you are acting as an emotional role model for a child. Labelling some of your own feelings will make it easier for a child to share theirs.
Another way to build emotional literacy is to use “feelings cards” or illustrations to introduce emotion vocabulary to children. Asking a child to describe what they are feeling is an important part of developing emotional literacy. If a child sees you cry, explain what you are feeling and why. An important part of teaching children about death is to show them that it is acceptable to cry and grieve.
- Explaining death and the body
Consider your child’s age and maturity when helping them understand the physical aspect of death. Begin this part of the conversation by making sure the child understands that the body of the person who died does not work anymore and will never work again.
Depending on your spiritual beliefs, you can also talk about what you and your family believe happens after death. An important part of teaching children about death is to try and make death a part of normal conversations with children.
- Explaining funerals
An important part of teaching children about death is explaining funerals and memorial services. Clear descriptions of what will happen (e.g., religious symbols, casket, black clothing etc.) are helpful as children thrive on knowing what to expect. Remember, you don’t have to talk about everything at once.
Explain the service in age-appropriate terms to help alleviate some of the anxiety that comes from not knowing what to expect. Let children know that they may feel a wide range of feelings as well, or they may not feel anything at all. Explain that sometimes our feelings come weeks or even months later.
- Children try to make sense of death by asking questions
Teaching children about death often comes with questions about their own mortality and the death of others close to them. It is important to teach your child that some people only die when they are very old or very sick, but we will all die one day.
Children may also wonder what happens when you die and how you answer this question depends on your personal or spiritual beliefs. Some children may find comfort in having something to focus on when thinking about a person who died, for example “when we see a star in the sky, we can think about Mum and how much she loved us”. However, avoid direct euphemisms which can confuse children (such as saying the stars in the sky are mum).
For more support on how to teach children about death, read our guide How to teach children about death.
If your family has experienced the death of a loved one, you and your child need to know that you are not alone. Feel the Magic support families through the difficult period following a death, and support children as they grieve the death of a loved one. Click here to find out more about our bereavement programs.