Explaining Death to Children

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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 breathing."*

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 friend.

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 Workshop.

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.

Talk, Listen, 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.

* Sesame Street, When Families Grieve

"Sesame Workshop"®, "Sesame Street"®, and associated characters, trademarks, and design elements are owned and licensed by Sesame Workshop. © 2009 Sesame Workshop. Photo by Gil Vaknin. All Rights Reserved.

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Jeanette Betancourt
Something Small, A Story About Remembering
By Sesame Street
When Families Grieve
By Sesame Street