Tricky Topics – Discussing Death With Kids

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Coming to terms with death is difficult for anyone, but especially children who often have no understanding of the subject.

Death is a part of everybody’s life and children will have already experienced it in many ways, through watching television or even just a family pet dying. Although lots of parents struggle to broach the topic with their kids, by talking to them about this delicate subject you can prepare them for any potential crises in the future and help them better understand the situation.

The Goldfish Tactic

Protecting your children by ignoring it will only harm them and further confuse everything. As children get older, their understanding and view on death will change considerably. This means that approaching them about it depends on their age. Buying them a pet, such as a goldfish, is a good exercise as due to its short life span, they’ll have some experience with death relatively early on.

Kids think very literally at a young age, so talking in euphemisms will only add to their confusion. Expressions such as ‘went to sleep or ‘went away’ will be taken literally and may cause them to fear such actions because of it. Whilst it is natural to want to protect your children from such realities, it’s also vital that you create an element of trust and support so they can cope moving forward.

Questions and Answers

Once they reach the age of around 5 or 6, your child’s perception will change as they grow out of this phase. They begin to properly grasp the concept of death, but will most likely still have a number of misgivings about it. A natural step for children is to personify death, such as through the grim reaper and they will most likely ask very frank questions regarding death in general. At this point they will also develop a curiosity towards it, such as discovering dead flowers or animals.

This is a prime opportunity for parents to talk about death and answer any questions their little ones might have. You should also reinforce the idea of life’s circle, explaining that everything dies but that new things are born in its place. Kids will not sit down for hours and debate the subject of death, instead they’ll come in and strike without any prior warning – it’s moments like this that make preparation crucial.

Shaping their experiences

Whether or not you take your child to a funeral is a tough and personal choice to make. Factors like their age and relation to the deceased will come into play. However, it’s also very important to let your child make this decision if they’re old enough. Before they do, explain to them exactly what will happen and why – this gives them enough of a mental picture to decide whether or not they should come; explaining that this is an incredibly sad occasion and that some people will be crying or upset is also necessary. They will most likely ask a lot of questions at the funeral so it’s best to sit them next to someone familiar who can answer these.

One of the hardest questions to answer from your child is whether they are going to die. Each child will react differently to the answer but it’s best to be as honest as possible, reinforcing the knowledge that it will not happen for a very long time. The same can be said if they ask a parent if they will die but telling them that everybody will die at some point or another will help. They may be initially shocked and scared by this announcement, yet it will help them better come to terms with it in the long run.


When it comes to mourning, it’s important for parents to let children know they can express themselves and that it’s ok to be sad or cry. Telling them to repress their emotions will do considerable damage and affect the way in which they treat death in later life. Children sometimes feel angry and guilty when they lose a family member, which is why they need to be reassured and comforted in these dark hours. They should be able to remember the loved ones they have lost through their memories, people remain alive in our minds.   

Death is a natural part of life and as harsh as it may seem, children need to understand this. If there isn’t an element of trust between you and your child, they may grow up feeling confused and misinformed. Helping them understand the concept will be a step towards helping them mourn for their loved ones and properly expressing their emotions. While concepts such as death will be terrifying to children to start with, they’ll grow out of that phase and soon learn acceptance.