Death could be a challenging subject to talk about, especially with children not because they may not fully understand the concept of death, but because accepting why a certain loved one is permanently gone can be more difficult for them. Some parents or guardians might even be afraid to talk about death with or around children as they want to protect young minds from this inevitable reality.

However, one should know that kids go through grief just like grownups. It’s even harder for them to cope with the loss when they don’t understand it the way adults do. This is why it’s important that we explain to them what death is in a proper and caring way.

How to Explain Death to Children

To help you through this journey, Forest Lake, one of the trusted memorial parks in the Philippines, compiled guidelines from experts on how to talk to children about death.

Gauge the age

Before talking to a child about death, you should be aware about their level of understanding. For instance, infants and toddlers cannot grasp death at all but they can feel what’s happening through your responses and the things that are going on around them.

Preschoolers, on the other hand, can be more curious about death. Most of the time, they see it as a temporary state and that the dead loved one will come back soon. The best way to talk to a preschooler about death, especially when they ask, is by giving them answers that are grounded to reality. One example is informing them that their deceased loved one will not be coming back as the body cannot function anymore.

Children of school age are able to understand the finality of death and it can haunt them more than the younger ones. They tend to be more wary of illnesses, accidents, and other causes of death, and might be more possessive and protective of you for a period of time.

Pre-adolescents fully understand the death but can have a hard time expressing how they feel about it.

According to child grief experts, the child’s age is the most important thing to consider before explaining death. Considering their age will also help you be more careful about the details you will open up.

Talk in an honest but calm way

We shouldn’t underestimate children. Most of them are smart enough to understand what you are saying. When finally having the talk about death, be clear. Don’t sugarcoat what happened but be mindful of how you relay the information to them. Being too blunt might

You can start by telling them what happened to their loved one. Were they sick? If so, let them know that it is normal for people to get sick and sometimes the body could not take it anymore.

Explain to them what they might see in the coming days – that they may witness family and friends crying and that they will be seeing their loved one inside a casket.

Let them know that it is natural to feel sad and that they are allowed to express it. Tell them that the sadness they are feeling is natural and they are allowed to express it. Share that you are experiencing the same feelings and that you are always by their side.

Find the right timing

Discussing a sensitive topic such as death needs to happen at the right time. Like you, children could be in a state of distress. They could be confused with this sudden or unexpected event. The best time to talk with a child is when you yourself have clear thoughts and when you are prepared to answer their questions.

During your exchange of feelings, have a certain amount of restraint. Instead of telling them everything in one sitting, give them brief but concise information and give them time to process it

Let them grieve

Children grieve in varying ways and as their guardian, be prepared to take on different kinds of responses. Some may grieve in silence while others may be asking for constant attention. No matter how they express sadness, it is necessary to give them the time and understanding that their need while they are grieving. Make them feel that you are there every step of the way.

Aside from checking on them regularly and making sure their basic needs are met, connect with them emotionally. Cry and laugh with them and take time to listen on what they had to say.

Remember the deceased in a thoughtful way

You could make the healing process easier for the children by honoring the deceased through making scrapbooks, planting trees, releasing balloons, or just by having a light-hearted chat. Laughter is still and always the best medicine and it works well with children. Helping them laugh or smile in a particularly dire situation will aid in their recovery.

Reading books or watching films that touch the topic of death in an appropriate manner is also one way to help children fathom what death really is and what one can do to immortalize the deceased.

Finally, let them have a role in funerals or memorial services such as speaking a small eulogy, handing out flowers, or welcoming visitors. If it happens that a child doesn’t want to attend or even be involved in ceremonies, don’t oblige them. Instead, let them know that they can go to the funeral or the memorial grave whenever they are ready.

In difficult times like death of a loved one, bereaved children need to feel heard, protected, and loved. Understand that talking to them about the current situation will help them recover and grow.

Forest Lake talked to grief coach Cathy Babao to ask about how to approach children and explain death during their time of grief. Here are the highlights of the interview:

Forest Lake: How does one approach a grieving child, assuming that the child already knows about the death of their loved one? How different would it be when approaching an adult?

Cathy: This would really depend on their developmental stage. You would need to know where the child is at, where the child’s understanding is.  When you say child, anyone age 18 and below is considered a child. At age seven, they would understand what death is about. Below the age of seven they can’t quite fully grasp it yet. At age ten and above, of course they have a deeper understanding.  To learn more about the child’s developmental stage, I highly recommend that one refer to Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. The most important thing to consider is, is to find out where the child is at, what he has understood about what was told to him regarding the death and if he has any questions, then respond to them. Again, it depends on the age. For instance, for some teenagers, it is difficult to probe when they don’t like to talk about it. You have to let the child take the lead in this case and observe their behavior. For younger children, play is a way for them to express themselves.

*Forest Lake recommends this article on the introduction to the topic:

Forest Lake: How would you explain to a child about the death of a loved one if they are not yet aware of it?

Cathy: Again, it would depend on the age and developmental stage of the child. Never use euphemisms like “Lolo is sleeping”, “Lolo has gone to heaven” or “God has taken him already.” This is because the child may develop sleep problems and this may give them a negative connotation of heaven and God. In some cases, it may cause feelings of anger as well that their loved one was “taken by Jesus or the angels.” For a child below seven years old, the explanation must be concretized into something the child can understand. An example would be, if the grandfather has passed away due to a heart condition, you can explain that as people get older, their body parts get old too and they break down. An older child from seven to 12 years old however would have a better understanding of death and you may even ask a doctor to explain what happened. It is important to keep in mind that the goal of the explanation is to offer just enough information to result in more understanding rather than causing more confusion.  Children’s grief is cyclical and questions repeat themselves. They may have questions at age eight and then they may ask the same questions when they get older at age 12 and the questions will become deeper as they understand more and again, when they’re 16-18 years old and even as they become young adults, the questions may again deepen as their level of understanding and knowledge widen.

Forest Lake: What advice would you give to parents and older siblings as they are trying to explain the death of a loved one to a child?

Cathy: First, expect questions to repeat themselves. So, be patient and understanding when explaining the death. Second, in the life-home setting, do not put in too many changes for the child. A death of a loved one shatters a child’s sense of trust and security in the world. There must still be a semblance of a routine. Avoid making major changes and removing what is familiar. This instills a feeling of security and trust about what they know to be there, amidst the death—whether it was a sudden or expected passing of a loved one—in order for the child to move forward and progress in a secure manner. The child also needs to know that death happens to everyone and every family. While some deaths occur earlier than others, when a loved one passes, there are people around him or her who will continue to take care of the child, look after him or her, and that he or she can depend on as they grow up into adulthood. The goal is to preserve the child’s sense of security and process these feelings early on so that as they become adults, they don’t become emotionally unavailable due to the fear of being hurt again. In other cases, they may become extra clingy as a of result of the feelings of abandonment in childhood. This can be tempered and avoided by providing a stable and loving support system for the child. 

Forest Lake Memorial Parks offers the Good Grief Workshop facilitated by Cathy Babao. Cathy is a journalist with a graduate degree in Family Psychology and Education from Miriam College. Trained in grief counselling at the Center for Loss and Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, Cathy has a private practice in Manila and holds grief and writing workshops. For Forest Lake clients interested to inquire about the Good Grief Workshops, please call  Meara Manaluz at 09777234034.