Explaining Death to Children
While adults have a greater understanding that death is part of
a cycle, young children do not have this same level of
understanding.* When it comes to death and children it's very
helpful to explain what death is and what it means.
Start with a practical definition of death
When talking to children about death, it's important to start
with practical information of what death actually is. You can say
something like "When a person dies, his or her body stops working.
The heart stops beating and the body stops moving, eating, and
For children the permanence of death is often difficult
understand. As a result, avoid words like "passed away" or "went to
sleep"; instead use more practical words like "died" or "dead."
While softer or vague language may seem gentler, it can leave a lot
of room for misunderstanding and confusion. Remember, be gentle,
but be clear so they understand when a person (or pet) dies, they
will not come back.
Follow up with your personal beliefs
Now that children have a broader understanding by definition
what it means to die, take the time to explain your own personal
beliefs about death. Help them to understand that others may have
different religious and cultural backgrounds; this may mean our
friends' beliefs may not be the same as our own. If you need
additional information on funeral traditions or religious
beliefs, visit the links on the top left to find out more.
Let them ask questions
Ask them if they have questions and try to answer them as
honestly as you can. You know your child best and can decide how
much or how little to reveal. Realize they might also be concerned
about you dying. It's important to be honest and reassure them by
saying "No one can promise that he or she won't die, but we take
good care of ourselves by staying healthy and strong, and I expect
us to be together for a long time."*
Help them understand grief
Most children will be focused on asking questions about death
and what it means, but it's just as important to explain grief to
our children. Grief can be explained as a sadness or loneliness
their friend is feeling because someone they loved died. This often
happens with the death of a loved one. They feel this way because
they will miss them very much. Let them know this is a normal
feeling (this recommendation is generally for older children as
they can empathize easier) and they need to let their friend feel
all of their feelings (good and bad) in order to be a good
It's all right for a child to approach their friend and
acknowledge the death of someone they loved by saying something
like "I heard about your __________, I'm so sorry." Also help them
understand their friend may not want to talk about it and that's
okay too. Continue to be their friend and if they notice their
friend is sad, ask them if they would like to talk.
If they do want to talk, tell your child, he or she can be a
good listener and let their friend talk and share their memories.
They can ask questions about the person if they like or just listen
- whatever they feel is appropriate or they are comfortable with. A
great story to read is Something Small, A story about
remembering provided as a public service by the Sesame
There is no right or wrong way to approach death
when talking to children.
Just as unique as your child is, so is their way of handling the
information you are giving them. Take cues from the questions they
are asking, their body language, and know as their caregiver, you
are the best judge of how much (or how little) information you
should give them.
Connect: A Grief Initiative from Sesame Street
Sesame Street created
"Talk, Listen, Connect", an
outreach initiative that provides free resources in support of
families with young children, in the military and the general
public, coping with the death of a parent. If your child is just
curious or has experienced the death of someone close to them,
check out their videos, activities, books and
downloadable resources for children and parents.