What to Say When a Child Asks about Death
Tell Children the Truth
When a loved one dies, children should be told what is happening as it happens. They should be told the truth, and their questions should be encouraged and answered.
It is important that those answers are specific, straightforward and brief, and that they address the child at their level. It is okay for adults to tell a child they do not know the answer to a question.
Children can usually absorb only bits of information at a time, so pay attention to their cues. They often repeat the same questions merely as a way to assimilate the answers.
Check to see if a child understands what has been said. Adults unsure of the meaning behind a child’s question should probe further by asking what the child meant or what they know about the topic.
Why Did Daddy Die?
It is important to probe further to assess whether they are asking this question because they feel sad, angry or guilty about the death. If so, it is imperative to allow the child to express those thoughts and feelings. The child should be reassured that death does not seem fair. But it may also be that they are asking about the physical process of death.
When is Mommy Coming Back?
It is okay to tell a child in a gentle, loving way that people who die do not come back, that as much as they may want Mommy to come back, she can’t because she is dead. Sometimes it is reassuring for a child to know that they can hold onto their feelings and memories about their loved one and that in that way, their loved one will always be with them. It may also be reassuring for them to know that they will also not always feel so sad about their loved one being gone.
Where is Grampy Now?
Before answering this question, it is helpful to know where they think Grampy is. The adult’s response would then be based on that belief. If the child believes Grampy is in heaven because that is the family’s spiritual belief, than that belief should be validated. To minimize confusion, it might be helpful to remind the child about the burial—for example, that their loved one was placed in a casket underground.
Will You Die Too?
It is important when answering this question to give reassurance and support but also to answer honestly. An example would be, “I will die sometime, but I hope to be here a long time yet. I do not have any serious illnesses.” Sometimes when a child asks this question, they are afraid of losing another loved one. A clarifying question might be, ”Are you worried that I won’t be here to care for you?”
How Long Will I Live?
A response might be that no one knows how long they will live, but that no one lives forever. The child should be reassured that most people live until they are old and that many old people are not worried about death.