How to Talk to Kids About Death

As I’ve mentioned, two of our close family members died this winter, and we had to figure out how to tell four-year-old Toby. Here are 10 things we learned…

1. Put your child in a cozy spot, such as sitting in your lap or lying next to you in their bed. I would often rub Toby’s back or hold his hands while we talked.

2. Be very direct and specific about the way the person died. Say something specific like, “Grandma’s heart was so sick. After a while, it stopped working and she died. It didn’t hurt.” If you say she went to sleep, your child might get scared of going to bed. And if you simply say that she was sick, without any more details, your child might get terrified of anyone getting a cold or the flu.

3. Talk about the death a bit at a time. I’ve read that kids process information in bite-sized chunks. So I would say a few simple sentences and then wait while Toby thought about it, or even went off to play. Then, invariably, he would come back to me with questions.

4. Don’t be offended if your child asks offbeat or blunt questions. Toby would ask unexpected questions, such as “Can girls die?” or “But Uncle Nick didn’t die, right?” or “When will you and Daddy die?” I tried to answer his questions matter-of-factly, and I told him that we were all healthy, and we plan to be around for a long, long, long time. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “Let me think about that and get back to you,” and follow up later.

5. Be practical when explaining what death means. We aren’t religious, and I’m really curious about how people deal with these conversations within a religion. (Please share if you have an answer!) We chose instead to describe death in a practical way: “Uncle Scott died, which means he can’t talk, eat, walk or run anymore.” It felt a little strange to me to describe death that way, but Toby seemed to appreciate the literal description.

6. Explain that people are sad. When Alex’s brother died, I told Toby that Daddy was very sad and that we had to be very quiet and give him lots of hugs. Toby asked often about who was sad and would repeat things like, “Daddy is very sad because Uncle Scott died” or “Everyone was sad when Dilly died.” He seemed very interested in how the adults were reacting. We also talked about how we might help people feel better, like writing a card to Grandma or making cookies for Daddy.

7. Reassure the child that the death was not his fault. This seems like a no-brainer, but since young children think the world revolves around them, they might worry that they did something to cause it.

8. Understand that your child may want to talk about it over and over (and over). Toby got pretty fixated on the idea of death, and he’d bring it up once or twice a day (and still brings it up every few days). He would ask me the same questions over and over. He would repeat facts simply to have me confirm them. He told me that his beloved imaginary friend Dun Dun died. I tried to stay very open and accepting of all his questions so he could take his time and work through it. Little kids can’t grasp the permanence of death, so it takes a while to wrap their minds around everything.

9. Realize that your child might show emotion in different ways. I read that young children can react to death by regressing in toilet training, reverting to baby talk or getting nervous about going to school. For Toby, we found that he suddenly developed major separation anxiety. He still doesn’t want me to leave for work, he asks us every evening if we’re staying home or going to dinner, and he comes into our bed at night. We are trying to stick to a very predictable schedule so he feels safe and secure — and knows that we aren’t going anywhere.

10. Tell happy stories about the person who died. Toby often asks for stories and I tell him things like, “Remember Uncle Scott played Jingle Bells on his guitar for you last Christmas?” or “Scott loved Lisa very much and he wore a fancy suit to their wedding.” We also look through old photos together.

One thing I’ve noticed is that children can be a huge pick-me-up during sad times. One morning this winter, I was walking Toby to school and ran into an acquaintance who casually asked me how I was. I couldn’t help bursting into tears and she gave me a hug. As I was trying to pull myself together, Toby looked up and said, “Mama, why you have a tear ON YOUR NOSE??” It made me laugh out loud. You can’t always stay too deep in it when you have a little one who wants to play, laugh and see the world in such a sweet way.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful for anyone navigating a similar situation, and I would love to hear your advice and stories, too. If you’re religious, do you explain death in a different way? xoxo

  1. Emily Harkin Filer says...


  2. I just stumbled across this post and while our death was that of our 16 year old cat and my son is only 2 years old I feel so thankful to have found this. Even with him being younger, I think the importance of things you have laid out for us here is so great. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should be more specific than to simply say our cat was “sick” and now I plan to have a more in depth conversation at the next opportune moment. Thank you incredibly much for your thoughtful and loving suggestions here.

  3. On the late bus but this post means so much to me now, though at the time I first read it, it wasn’t really relevant to me. But it’s been a wonderful guide for talking with my four year old about her grandpa dying. Thanks COJ! Really and truly, and very deeply.

  4. Alice says...

    Joanna, thank you for this post, and for encouraging these comments. In trying to resolve some bedtime drama with my 3 year old, I discovered that he was getting anxious about mommy and daddy getting old and not being with him anymore… a possibility that only recently occurred to him we he learned that my husband’s mom, who died many years ago, isn’t with us anymore. Like you, my husband and I aren’t religious, though we do have an open mind that there are mysteries in the universe that we might not understand, and goodness knows we sometimes feel like loved ones lost are still with us. So, we ended up telling our son that even if you can’t see a person or talk to a person, the love you share with a person never goes away. And for now, that seemed to help. I’m glad to have this post for reference when we need help again. Thanks for the community you foster. It’s such a buoy in this crazy world.

  5. Cheryl says...

    Just wanted to say thank you for this post. My brother-in-law just passed away this week, and we’ve been having some difficult conversations with my 5 year old about death. I remembered this post from last year and came back to read it with new eyes. These tips are extremely helpful.