How To Handle The Hardest Conversation You'll Have With Your Kids: A Psychologist Explains

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Death is something that will affect every family at some point. And yet it’s a subject few parents know how to talk about with their children. How much is too much to explain? Too little? How do you answer kids’ questions without traumatizing them?

As a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, I know that many parents are looking for advice around how to appropriately talk about death with their little ones, especially after the passing of a loved one.

And even if a family hasn’t personally experienced loss yet, this time of year — with Halloween ghosts and gravestones showing up everywhere — can often lead curious little kids to ask big questions about death and dying. Here's how I recommend handling the conversation and grieving process:

1. Tailor your answers to your child's age and maturity.

The most important thing for parents to do when having these conversations is to consider their children’s age and developmental level.

For example, children under age 3 won't be able to fully understand the finality of death — but it is still appropriate to give them a brief explanation. I recommend simply saying that when someone dies, the child will not be able to talk to them again in person after the funeral.

For older children, over age 10, parents may engage in more in-depth conversations about the causes of death, the meaning of death as a part of the life cycle, and specific cultural beliefs about the function of death.

When a child asks why someone died, your response should also depend on his or her developmental level. For younger kids, you can say that there's a natural life cycle and that most things live for a time and then die to make space for other new things to live. For older children, you can explain that sometimes our bodies wear out and death is a natural process when our bodies can no longer function.

If a child asks if he himself will die, simply reassure him that he doesn't need to worry about death now, but that it’s a natural part of the life cycle. The goal is to keep your children focused on life and the things he has to look forward to.

2. Emphasize that grief and sadness are normal.

When a child loses a loved one, it’s really important to normalize the experience of grief. Make sure your kid knows that she may feel sad, want to cry, and miss the person who died, and this is all to be expected. Explain that she'll continue to think about the person, but over time the feelings of sadness will hopefully get better.

One strategy to help young children process their feelings of grief and sadness: Encourage them to draw pictures of a special time they remember spending with the loved one or even write a brief letter to the person about how much they're missed.

For example, a close friend of mine recently lost her mother after a battle with cancer. Her young children (ages 3 and 5) were angry, sad, and confused about why they wouldn’t be able to see their grandmother anymore. My friend empathized and expressed that she also felt sad. She then relied on religious beliefs to share information about what would happen after death and encouraged her children to draw pictures and write notes. The notes and pictures were kept in a special box that the children could visit whenever they missed their grandmother. This helped the whole family grieve.

3. Examine your own religious beliefs before discussing an afterlife.

Families should be clear about what their particular religious or spiritual beliefs are before broaching the concept with their little ones. Especially if you and your partner come from different traditions, decide the message you'll provide your children ahead of time to avoid confusing them.

If your family is religious, I recommend using relevant children’s books or religious texts to ease the process. And only tell your kids they'll see their loved ones in another life if it’s a true belief of yours that provides you with comfort or a purpose for living.

If this isn't a conversation you feel comfortable having, it’s also okay to rely on a simple explanation like, “We always have our memories of our loved ones, whether or not we see them again.”

4. Handle discussions of traumatic death with special care.

If your child is dealing with a traumatic loss, he may experience a different grieving process than when it's a loss that was expected or resulted from natural causes. In the case of traumatic loss, children will probably wonder if there was anything they could have done to prevent the death. Make sure you let your children know that the death wasn't their fault and that their anger and sadness is completely warranted.

I find that in these cases, books about grief can be especially helpful. A few I recommend: Always and Forever, by Alan Durant; Someone Special Died, by Joanne Prestine; and Where Do People Go When They Die, by Mindy Avra Portnoy.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is also a wonderful resource for parents and teachers who need assistance helping children with traumatic loss or grief. And A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes is a great book for children exposed to this kind of loss.

Finally, it's extremely important that families maintain routines as much as possible, to help children cope and readjust. And most of all, parents should continually remind children throughout the grief process that they are loved and safe.

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