Death and dying… How to talk about the loss of a loved one with your child.

By Olivia Smith – Psychologist

As much as we might hope that our child will be spared from having to deal with the death of someone they know, sadly this is not always the case. Adults can allow their own discomfort in discussing such a difficult topic create confusion and possibly even fear for children. Ideally, we should try and help children to understand death before they encounter it.

So, what is the best way to approach these discussions? 

  • Be clear and to the point, e.g., “I’m sorry to tell you that Grandma has died”. Avoid euphemisms such as ‘we lost her’, ‘she’s gone to sleep’, ‘she passed away’ or ‘she has gone to heaven’, as this can lead to misunderstandings. 
  • Try to be as honest as possible – avoid trying to ‘protect’ children, they are astute at picking up when something is wrong but may be confused by lack of information.
  • Assure them it was nobody’s fault, as children can sometimes blame themselves. 
  • Depending on the age of the child, you might need to explain what being dead means, e.g., that person’s heart stopped beating, they stopped breathing and their brain shut down; they can no longer move, talk, or think. Sometimes a good way to discuss this can be if you happen upon a dead insect at home. 
  • Do not be alarmed if younger children start acting out scenarios about death in their play- this is very normal and a way of processing what has happened. 
  • Be open to talking about the fact no-one lives for forever, and most people die when they are old. Explain that a smaller number of people may die before they’re old, and this can seem unfair. It may be due to illness or an accident.
  • Children are often curious about what happens after we die. How you respond to this depends on your own cultural and spiritual beliefs. You might also discuss that others may have different beliefs, and that is okay. 
  • Normalise any emotional response your child might have – even if they do not seem to have one at all. 
  • Don’t feel like you must hide your own sadness from your child; instead explain you are sad because you loved the person a lot. 
  • Try to answer any questions they might have or discuss them later if needed. 
  • Give your child a choice about attending the funeral. Take the time to explain to them what to expect, including whether the individual is being buried or cremated, what others may do, and what the body will look like (in the case of an open casket). You might organise another adult to be with them during the ceremony and have materials on hand for them to take a break if needed.  
  • Talk about ways your child might like to remember the person, e.g., creating a special place in the garden, making a box of memories, writing a letter to them, or sharing memories. 

Olivia is an Educational and Developmental Psychologist who has worked in a range of settings, including schools, universities, the not-for-profit sector and private practice. She has substantial experience working with children, adolescents and their families, including completion of neurodevelopmental and learning assessments.

Olivia strives to build warm and collaborative relationships with children, adolescents, parents and other professionals involved in a child’s life.

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