Telling Children about a Death

When someone close to a child dies, that news should come from a parent or trusted adult. Keep the following things in mind when telling the child of a death:

  • Allow time to collect yourself. Do not be afraid to express your own emotions, but avoid hysteria, blame or losing control. Children can sense when people are hiding things, and they may get the impression it is wrong to cry.
  • Stay physically close. Touch the child or hold him or her on your lap.
  • Use the word "dead." Avoid ambiguous phrases such as "gone to sleep." Children will take what you say literally. Do not tell children things you will have to "untell" them later.
  • Reinforce the meaning of physical death. Let children know the body has stopped working.
  • Acknowledge likely feelings such as anger, sadness and fear.
  • Be true to your religious beliefs, but realize children will take these statements literally, too. "If heaven is up in the sky," a child may ask, "why are we burying Grandma in the ground?"
  • Never try to hide a death from children or wait until they are older or better able to understand it. Exclusion can bring a sense of rejection and result in misinterpretation of what is going on.